Sign Language

At their best, pictograms tell us clearly where to go and what to do; at their worst, things can get interesting


Consider the pictogram. You have to, because pictograms are everywhere and often are your only guidance. Think of these elementary signs as a primitive art form sharing an ancestor with alphabets—hieroglyphs—but also as a sophisticated effort to overcome the Babel of tongues and cultures. A pictogram is worth a thousand words, or should be. When it works, it mirrors our assumptions about what doesn’t need to be spelled out and matches the way we see the world. The problem occurs when it doesn’t.

Contemporary pictogrammy is a fixture of that increasingly undifferentiated traveler’s world of highways, rail terminals, and especially airports, where just about anybody may turn up either knowing exactly what to do or not having the slightest idea. For a restroom, one looks for a man or woman in stick-figure form. Departing flights are indicated by an upward-pointing aircraft, which is fine, but the precariously downward-tilting arrivals pictogram always puts me in mind of an impending crash. A dual-image pictogram—an auto next to a ring of old-fashioned keys—yields rental car very nicely. A sun and a moon (always a crescent moon) together mean 24/7. The sweetest pictogram I have ever seen depicts a child, one hand to its face, one big tear popping from its head: lost-child retrieval.

For first aid you might look for a cross, preferably red—except that in some parts of the world, the equivalent pictogram is a crescent or a Star of David. This creates a dilemma where cultural and religious associations threaten to undermine global intelligibility. So a couple of years ago health officials from nearly 200 countries gathered in Geneva and agreed on a new symbol for medical assistance, one without sectarian overtones—a diamond. We’ll see if it works. This Esperanto-style idealism can be problematic. I was struck in Charles de Gaulle Airport by a beautifully simple pictogram, a kind of reverse S representing a kneeling figure to indicate a prayer or meditation room. I asked myself whether people in all religions pray on their knees. Answer: No. Neither do all people eat with a knife and a fork, the supposedly universal symbol for restaurant.

Pictograms are supposed to replace words, but sometimes their inventors are stumped and retreat to the Roman alphabet, which is cheating. P seems the accepted way to convey parking (I can’t think of a pictogram for parking either). H can mean hospital. A lowercase i means information. For this purpose I prefer the alternate and vaguely amusing European norm—?—although sometimes I wonder if I am being asked a question or being told We don’t know either. I am also fond of the ! found in a yellow triangle on European roadways, alerting one to an imminent potential hazard. Heads up, in other words, although it would be nice if the image could just as easily be conveying Sublime vista around the bend! or Michelin two-star ahoy!


Don’t has long been represented in Europe by a red circle with an angled line across a field containing the proscribed activity. Thanks almost entirely to the movie Ghostbusters, this nameless and critically important symbol is now an American icon as well, most often superimposed on a burning cigarette or a cell phone. Other recent inventions lead me into vexation, notably in that subcategory of pictograms found on kitchen appliances and electronic equipment. Am I alone in thinking that the circle and vertical line symbols meaning on and off could just as easily mean off and on? The line tells me nothing, and the circle could mean open or zero or empty. Or on. Or off.

Pictograms are not just language. They are folk art. My brother found a wonderful Web site,, that features photographs of homespun pictograms from around the world, many of them inscrutable and most of them comical. The deeper hilarity comes from the possible explanations for each sign posted by visitors. I leave you to imagine the pictograms that prompted “Blind people eating mushrooms prohibited.” Or “Quasimodo crossing only.” Or “No mooning the cockroaches.” Or “If you are a giant, do not attack two-story building or you will be tossed off the cliff.”

My jolliest revelation came in Barcelona some years ago. As I walked around the city during my first days there, a Saturday and Sunday, I noticed everywhere big green booths, metal and enclosed, topped by a pictogram: a human (male) stick figure, but with a third, skinnier, longer “leg” angling off to one side. Call me stupid, but I assumed that these booths were high-tech urinals, all of which happened to be, frustratingly, closed. In my curious distress I pondered the pictographic questions of why these facilities were just for men—although such were pissoires in Paris in the old days—and why their function was depicted so very graphically. That Monday, when the booths were open for business, I learned the truth. These were lottery kiosks. The pictogram was of a man with a cane: lottery proceeds in Spain go to the blind. No Spaniard has trouble making this mental carom shot from a lottery ticket to a handicapped person.

What troubles me about pictograms—and troubles the professionals, based on what I have read—is not just their proliferation and the resulting aggregate clutter (imagine an alphabet with thousands of letters), but their excessive detail. For example, you might have to stop, squint, and think about a sign showing a book, a package, and a pipe. Is that really the universal triad for denoting gift shop? And who buys a pipe anymore?

A pictogram is not supposed to force contemplation. Here’s how a scholar named Tom Conley frames the idea in his book The Self-Made Map: “The pictogram allows the subject to reach back to…rigid structures of originary fantasm, to the unconscious, and to childhood experiences that precede the acquisition of language….New connections are made by virtue of the pictogram that moves between inherited orders of geography and a sense of growth into a map that is at once recognizable, collective, and personal.”

Well, sure. We use an envelope on our computers to designate e-mail, for instance, and a skull and crossbones to denote danger: talk about originary fantasm! Yet one can so easily be led astray. A friend who lived in the Middle East for many years recalls encountering road signs depicting two bumps. Being a westerner, he inferred speed bumps ahead. Only there never were any. Driving one day he came face to face with the actual warning of the pictogram: camel crossing.

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Charles Trueheart is a Scholar contributing editor and former director of the American Library in Paris. His book about Vietnam in the Kennedy years, Diplomats at War, is forthcoming.


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