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The Psychology of Pictogram, Icon & Sign Graphics

What are the psychological principles on the design to communicate with multicultural people?

Jie Shi Lee

on 25 November 2013

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Transcript of The Psychology of Pictogram, Icon & Sign Graphics

Pictogram is a symbol representing words by illustration used to convey message or information more quickly instead of using letters, it should be able to recognize and communicate with people from different cultures.
The Intention or Purpose
Indicative: influencing thought
The indicative intention is merely to inform the receiver, but he is left to make his own decision about how to act.

Imperative: influencing the will
The imperative intention is to influence the behaviour of the receiver.

Suggestive: influencing feelings
The suggestive intention is to influence the subconscious mind of the receiver through his feeling, so that he will act in a particular way.
The Psychology of Pictogram, Icon & Sign Graphics
Abdullah, R. and Hübner, R. (2006) Pictograms, icons & signs: a guide to information graphics. London: Thames & Hudson Ltd

Ballinger, L.B. and Ballinger, R.A. (1972) Sign, symbol & form. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Company

Caplin, S. (2001) Icon design: graphic icons in computer interface design. London: Cassell & Co

Cossu, M. (2010) Walk this way: sign graphics now. New York: Collins Design

Frutiger, A. (1980) Type sign symbol. Zurich: ABC Verlag

Wyman, L. (2007) Pictogram & icon graphics. Tokyo: Pie Books
design by Dóri Sirály for Prezi
This Prezi is essentially a review of research on the psychology of pictogram, icon and sign graphics. They form part of our daily lives either in the real or virtual world. What are the psychological principles on the design to communicate with multicultural people?
What is Pictogram?
by Jie Shi Lee
‘A pictogram is an iconic sign that depicts the character of what is being represented and through abstraction takes on its quality as a sign.’ - Herbert W. Kapitzki
For example:
Indicative: It is to inform the receiver that he may smoke at here, but it is not a must, he may choose not to smoke.

Imperative: Smoking is prohibited. So the receiver do not smoke even he feels like having a cigarette. It is influencing the behaviour of the receiver.

Suggestive: It represents smoking is bad for your lungs with the combination of cigarette and lungs. It may influence the receiver's feeling that he might stop smoking.
Combining with the Surroundings
A pictogram is normally a pictorial symbol (a visual representation of the designed object), and it comprises a combination of things: the surroundings, the form, the colour, and symbols or icons with a high degree of abstraction.
If the surroundings change, the meaning of the pictogram will also change.
Let's see, the 'no smoking' pictogram has different meaning at different places.

At the first and second picture, the meaning of the 'no smoking' pictogram is unclear when put on a tree or a fence. Because the receiver do not know the range of how far the area is smoking forbidden.

But when the pictogram is place in a room (the last picture), receiver is clearly understood that smoking is forbidden in this room.

When the pictogram is in the book, it became indicative but not imperative.

Is the aim simply, like a signpost, to show where the toilets are?

Is the aim to warn against a danger, for example poison (with a skull)?

Is the aim to induce a certain kind of behaviour (e.g. to throw your litter in a bin)?

Is the aim to enforce a law (e.g. a round, red-rimmed road sign indicating a speed limit)?
Colour Matter!
Table below shows how the form and colour combined to convey different meaning by the UN to standardize traffic signs all over the world.
Culture Neutrality
Make sure that the pictogram is not only representative to one culture.

As Abdullah and Hübner (2006, p.36) explained, "International comprehensibility is an indispensable quality of the pictogram."
The 'STOP' sign in Arabic word is lack of cultural neutrality, but the message is still can conveyed by the standardize form and colour.

Between, the word 'STOP' is familiar enough worldwide because it is the international language, so it is permissible exception in pictogram design.
Although the international language is familiar enough. But...

should be avoided as far as possible.
Because this may cause misunderstood for people who not familiar with the language or illiterate people.
In Germany, for example, a pictorial symbol has been introduced to indicate 'exit'.

There are also indicative signs with the word 'Ausfahrt' (exit) at the exit itself.
Additionally, vehicle at a great speed may have no time to read the words in time.

As Caplin (2001, p.17) mentioned, "In some specialized situations, the need for speed of recognition is more important than ease of comprehension. Road signs typify this requirement."
Themes to be Designated:
Another example:
This five-colour system from Berlin Transport Services was used to divide the different pictograms into categories:

YELLOW gave general directions to the traveller

RED highlighted safety devices in the event of danger (for instance, fire extinguishers or alarms)

BLUE indicated facilities for disable people

GREEN stood for what to do in an emergency

GREY pictograms were used for company signs.
What is Icon?
Icon is a representative image that stands for its object or program to indicate the meaning or function rather than by a textual instruction in both real and virtual worlds.
As Caplin (2001, p.7) explained, "Icons can be images of great subtlety and artistry. They can effectively communicate the most complex of ideas in a simple, elegant manner that transcends the boundaries of language and culture."
Wyman (2007, p.4) stated, "They are daily companies that come in many sizes and they all strive for one important characteristic – to have minimum form and maximum communication value."

But compared to pictogram, icon design is more free and it has a higher entertainment factor. They play an important role as function on mobile, computers and other electronic interfaces.

Another big difference is icons can be animated.
Pictograms v. Icons
Things to consider when designing an effective icon:

Icons have to be legible when small on a printed page or computer screen and they have to be legible on road signs when viewed from a distance and from a moving vehicle.

It’s important to factor in check points along the way to test if the icons are communicating the intended message.
Top row: Clear enough, indicate the temperatures at which cloths should be washed. The only learned element here is the single bar and double-dashed bar beneath the washing bowl.

Second row: The meaning is clear and cannot easily be forgotten.

Bottom row: These four icons give no indication whatsoever of their meaning. The over-simplification of the symbols had lead to complete incomprehensibility.
If an icon should represent a tree but isn’t recognizable because it is abstracted to avoid being too obvious, it isn’t going to be a good communicator. The obvious can be transformed into a unique image without loosing it’s power of communication.
This is the sign system for Art Museum in Germany, a good example to explain this point.

The extra quality of this system lies in its linear grid which gives the signs-based on individual exhibits – the degree of abstraction necessary for orientation, as well as the uniformity necessary for a sign system. The grid causes a dynamic movement that varies according to the visitors distance and replaces the rigidity of other systems with a kind of animation.
Creating a unified look for an icon is usually desirable. A unifying background shape can also be used and can suggest a cultural context as well as be a unifying form.
The design consciously aimed to evoke a feeling of warmth and friendliness, by stressing curved lines. The shape of the background is also unified.
When you have a system of icons it is important that each one has it’s own identity to avoid confusion. It is helpful if each image can be identified in any language.
They can be friendly, authoritative, smart, silly and so on. They can express joy. They not only inform and help us find our way, they contribute to the quality of our lives.
The different icon motifs must be produced in different forms for different applications. The variation used will depend on technical considerations and the environment provided.
The signage reflect youthful spirit, respect for individuality and hospitality. The logo speaks of “individual vs community.” Color usage expresses different personalities and youthfulness with a flexible combination of pictogram and type that allows for different identities within the overall identity.
Palm Inc. commissioned Meta Design, San Francisco, to design the interface icons for their new range of products. It must be possible representation of icons in black and white, different tones of grey, colours, large and small.
What is Sign?
At here, a sign which can be a symbol, a mark, or a pictogram that conveys meaning on public display to communicate information or instructions in a written or symbolic form.
According to Ballinger (1972, p.11), "It might be a combination or separate use of letters and forms to communicate an idea, to warn, or to explain an area’s contents."
The Form
Things – Actual Objects
The display of actual objects to inform the passerby of wares available for purchase is one of the oldest sign techniques and, no doubt, precedes actual signs.

Without words or with very few words, the beholder translates the object into a message that has an instant and direct appeal.
There is a natural sequence in the evolution of signs. First, the form is reproduced; then the form becomes a symbol of items or services offered.
Flags and Pennants
Flags and pennants, with their wide variety of colors and symbols, present an exciting and stirring sight when used in processions, parades, celebrations, expositions, or at public places.

They create special interest as signs because their waving rhythms essentially make a “sign in motion”. They are especially effective when flood-lighted at night.
Human Forms
With almost unlimited opportunities of suggested action and position, the human form can be used to express an idea, an emotion, or a meaningful activity. There are specific instances where a human figure used without words or identification is a self-evident sign for a particular business or trade.
The Cross
The cross, or crossed lines of various kinds, has been related to religious beliefs for centuries. When used as a symbol, the cross is more apt to signify humanitarian or religious groups.
When message can be told instantly with a symbol or simple form, the sign’s function is complete. Most sign, however, require additional information, and the use of lettering is the only adequate complement to other design elements.
Adrian Frutiger (1980) fight against this point.

He said that, "The idea of using signs and symbols within the framework of a multilingual assembly of readers is attractive; but considered in detail, the number of internationally readable signs is still very small." (Frutiger, 1980, p.86)

He also provided an example:
Pictograms were ruled out because their meaning is never sufficiently unambiguous.

The word “Bar” is clearer than the pictogram of a glass, since confusion arises in pictorial representation so far as further information within the same classification of “nourishment” is concerned.

On the other hand, a number of written concepts have been formed into an internationally usable “travel language”, mainly derived from English. Misinterpretations of these words are scarcely possible.
The message must be visual, direct, and easily remembered so that immediate action can be taken. The symbol has come into even greater use today in the form of arrows, one- or two-way indicators, circles, and silhouettes of things such as trucks, children, and construction sites.

Signs along an expressway need to be interpreted at a glance from a speeding vehicle, for immediate action. Therefore, the letter forms must be simple and legible, lanes clearly marked, and symbols for traffic changes easily identifiable.
According to Cossu (2010, p.6), "Sign design can be seen as the frame that “makes” places, that delimits the spaces and gives a comprehensible dimension to objects. The mediation between the user and the space happens through design; it’s how users interact with the environment."
A green plaster half-moon ceiling serves as counterpoint to the building’s mechanical perfection and helps bring visibility to the hanging arrow signage.
Pictogram and icon have something in common, both of them created to communicate message in visual form that solve language barriers in both our real world and virtual space.

But pictograms are used to guide, warn, request or ban and needed to be recognized immediately and culture neutrality. In contrast, icons are used to indicate the meaning or function in a fun and entertaining way.

Additionally, Sign are used to communicate information and explain an area's contents. It could be actual object, symbol, flag and pennant, human form, cross, lettering and numeral.
Further Exploration
To explore further in this area, I would like to do a deeper research on the psychology of pictogram, icon and sign design, includes color, shape, typography or any psychological principles that will affects the design of pictogram, icon and sign.

For more theory, some research of the relationship between Gestalt principles, Pragnanz principle, Figure-Ground principle, the Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, and pictogram, icon and sign design could be done.
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