Sunday, 11 January 2015

When pictograms use icons of the past...

'YVR Pictograms' by
Tom Magliery under  a CC license
A pictogram is an image, often depicting a physical object. that conveys a specific message. Pictograms are meant to facilitate the perception of a message, regardless of the language skills of the people exposed to them. Well, the latter in some cases is rather optimistic. Of course, in the case of widely used pictograms, such as road signs, very high positive recognition rates can be expected. But is that the case for all pictograms?

Pictograms have been increasingly used everywhere. The chances are that the ones we come across daily go much beyond the Public information symbols (of ISO 7001:2007), the laundry symbols or the chemical hazard symbols (GHS 2013 revision). Indeed, remote controls, televisions, software programs, smartphones, etc., rely a lot on the use of pictograms, rather than descriptive text, in order to be operated by the user as intented.

Some symbols are abstract so we get to learn their meaning. For instance, the volume level symbol on a remote normally looks like that:

Although the displayed symbol on a laptop might be like that:


Other pictograms are more interesting. For instance, the symbol for saving a file:

That is a 3.5'' diskette and while I have used plenty of those, the new generations may have never held one in their lives. The same goes for opening a file. The filing system depicted is still in use in many places but is becoming increasingly uncommon sight:

The paste function is associated with a clipboard icon. Clipboards are still in use but, again, they are not that common amongst young people. Palettes are not a common sight, too, although they are in use by professionals. Still, they are used in several pieces of drawing software.

Voice messages are often behind a pictogram that depicts a magnetic tape:

E-mail clients and webmail services typically use the old, common snail-mail envelope:

Some older e-mail clients used the US-style mailbox with the flag:

Many sound-processing-capable programs use the old-style microphone symbol to indicate record:

There are numerous other cases. For instance the old-school phone handset pictogram (that means "make a call"), the bookmark symbols, the calliper symbols (for measuring distances in photo-editing software), the gear or wrench symbols in software (usually leading to the settings sections), the film reel symbol (indicating video), the album symbol (indicating, well, a digital album), the binoculars and the magnifying glass symbols (search function - OK - both of these are in regular use), etc. But I think I'll end this section with the rabbit-eared TV symbol:

Similar problems exist in other fields, as well. Language expressions may refer to objects or practices of the past that are no longer used. That includes jargon, too (e.g., "radio buttons" in questionnaires that allow the respondent to select only one option). There are also sounds we don't hear often any more (such as the typewriter clicks in the typewriter song).

Employing pictograms to convey messages is not an easy task. Sometimes, they are artistic (e.g., pictogram movie posters). Sometimes they are fun but sometimes not so much. In some cases, if the pictogram fails to be understood, it could even be dangerous. This is particularly important when posting pictograms that will stay in place for tens or hundreds (or more) of generations, such as the warning signs in nuclear waste land burial sites.

It is clear that our world will continue to rely - increasingly - on pictograms. I'm sure that, as time passes, designers will get better in conveying messages in a graphical way and we will become better in interpreting in-context symbols.

Note: Clipart symbols obtained from CLKER (and are thought to be in the public domain).

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