Pictograms are among mankind’s earliest inventions. From the cave paintings at Lascaux and Egyptian hieroglyphics to the pictograms found throughout modern international airports, humans have been conveying ideas through images for thousands of years.
Good pictograms are literal and easy to understand regardless of language or cultural barriers. They convey a single idea. They can be understood on a subconscious level in the blink of an eye. Pictograms are an important aspect of most interior signage solutions and they are crucial to effective ADA signage.
Unfortunately, not all pictograms work as well as they should. To help you avoid choosing or using bad pictograms in your corporate signage design, here is a list of a few pictogram pitfalls:
Stick figures. If it looks like a 5-year-old did it, it isn’t right for your organization – unless you sell pretzel sticks or pipe cleaners. Pictograms need to be recognizable, but not so stylized that they bring undue attention to themselves.
Multiple ideas. A pictogram needs to represent one thing clearly. Trying to cram multiple pieces into a single pictogram is a recipe for confusion.
Lack of context. The pictogram above isn’t bad. In fact, it’s part of an award-winning set produced through collaboration between AIGA, the professional organization for design, and the U.S. Department of Transportation for use in airports and other transportation hubs. The issue here is what may make sense in the context of an airport setting may not make sense elsewhere. (For the record, the pictogram signifies “arriving flights.”)
- Stylized arrows. If you use wayfinding signage to point someone in a given direction, make sure they know they are looking at an arrow.
- Smiley faces. The largest retailer in America can get away with them; you can’t.
- Rainbow colors. Color is important. Color is good. Too much color is a mess. Pictograms should be one color.
- Remember, not all pictograms are created equal, so choose wisely when using them to enhance your ada signage.