Pictograms: the history and evolution of “universal” symbols

Pictograms: the history and evolution of “universal” symbols

Marco Minzoni Published on 12/11/2020

Most of you have probably heard of pictograms.

But for those who haven’t, they are a system of signs developed in modern times, but with ancient origins. Basically, a pictogram is a drawing that by convention is taken to signify something. In terms of semiotics, a pictogram is an illustrated representation; an iconographic sign that represents complex ideas, not through words or sounds, but using visual containers of meaning.

A pictogram represented in various ways; the message remains the same.

Leading designers and scholars from around the world have given serious thought to pictograms. The definitions developed over the years have tended to approach them from a single perspective, looking at aspects such as their history, function or visual effectiveness; yet, pictograms are in fact multifaceted. They present various relationships: between the sign and its meaning, between the meaning and the intended purpose. So, while pictograms may seem simple at first glance, they in fact open a window onto a complex and fascinating world.

According to Otto Neurath (the economist, philosopher and inventor of the Isotype system), a pictogram is an element of a system with “absolute validity”, while for Otl Aicher (the graphic designer and founder of the Ulm School of Design), “a pictogram must look like a sign, but not be an illustration”. And in the opinion of Herbert W. Kapitzki (formerly a professor at the Berlin University of the Arts and co-founder of the Institute for Visual Communication and Design) “a pictogram is an iconographic sign that depicts the characteristics of what it represents, and uses abstraction to show that it is a sign”.

The history of pictorial signs with examples from the ages

 Where did pictograms come from? What are their ancestors? And how have they evolved over time? We take a journey through the centuries to bring you pictorial signs in their various guises over the years right up to modern pictograms in use today. If we had to point to an ancestor of pictograms, it would be so-called pictorial signs, which are just graphical expressions applied to two-dimensional media.

The only existing language today that is derived directly from pictorial signs is Chinese. The first Chinese inscriptions date all the way back to 1200 BC, and are the famous oracle bones, which featured symbols that were precursors to the characters still used today.

Oracle bone from the Shang dynasty. Image by Lowell Georgia

Pictorial signs have changed significantly over the course of history. The oldest date to around 30,000 BC and take the form of wall paintings inside a cave near Montignac, France (the Lascaux Cave). We still don’t know why these 6,000 images (including animals, human figures and abstract signs) were painted, but we do know that they weren’t used to communicate a specific message.

Sections of the Lascaux Cave paintings

Other important examples are Egyptian hieroglyphics, the cuneiform writing system of Mesopotamia and Mayan glyphs, which all date from the same period. These were languages in their own right that used a system of pictorial signs. Thanks to the discovery of the Rosetta Stone in 1799 (which carried the same inscription in Egyptian hieroglyphics, Demotic and ancient Greek), it was possible to decipher hieroglyphics for the first time and understand that they represented the sounds of a language that was once spoken.

Detail of the upper part of the Rosetta Stone

In the 12th century, a new type of pictorial sign emerged, one which survives today among the noblest families: the coat of arms. This was emblazoned on the helmet and armour of knights during the middle ages, and then evolved into family crests.

Family crest of the Italian Mancini family

With the invention of printing in the 1400s, new signs appeared, ornamental friezes inserted into the pages of books called vignettes. Originally featuring floral motifs, over time they grew to include themes such as religion, festivities, the seasons and animals.

Examples of various types of vignette

The pictogram pioneers

Pictograms as we know them today are a modern invention.

The growing popularity of the car and the building of ever-denser road networks led to a proposal for an international system of four pictograms for road signs, which was agreed in Paris in 1909. Initially adopted by Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, France, Germany, Italy, Monaco, Spain and the United Kingdom, the system was expanded in 1927 and recognised by the League of Nations committee on traffic.

The four road signs proposed at the International Convention on Motor Traffic in Paris in 1909

In 1936, Otto Neurath together with Rudolf Carnap and Charles W. Morris, developed the Isotype (International System of Typographic Picture Education) system. This created standardised international diagrams and graphics, but also text and illustrations used in public. While this system is today widespread, at the time it was the first step towards the scientific and international study and use of pictograms.

Some pictograms created by Gerd Arntz for the Isotype system

The 1936 Berlin Olympic Games saw the first pictograms used in a sporting context, although the real turning point was the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Abstract and geometric images were used to communicate information to visitors (such as the different sports and disciplines). The language of pictograms used today for the Olympics was developed for the 1972 Munich games by designer Otl Aicher. His system was created using simple and stylised forms developed with such a level of precision that this formal language has continued to influence modern pictograms ever since.

Pictograms for running disciplines at Berlin 1936, Tokyo 1964 and Munich 1972 (with grid)

In 1968, a committee from the German Airports Association produced a report that recommended the use of pictograms in airports. In successive decades, these systems have been applied to both local and national public transport.

Pictograms in commercial design

What about today? Where do things stand? We are now used to seeing pictograms everywhere, whether on physical objects or digital devices. This language is still used in a huge range of contexts; let’s have a closer look at some interesting examples of commercial design.

The visual and wayfinding system of Cologne Bonn Airport – created by Intégral Ruedi Baur Paris between 2003 and 2005 – includes not only pictograms, but also a typeface created on the same grid and with the same squat shapes. The pictograms are divided into two categories: in the first are simple and stylised signs featuring a thick outline, while the second comprises realistic and detailed silhouettes.

Images by Intégral Ruedi Baur Paris
Images by Intégral Ruedi Baur Paris
Images by Intégral Ruedi Baur Paris
Images by Intégral Ruedi Baur Paris


In 2013, Sagmeister & Walsh create a visual identity for Function Engineering, a company that specialises in mechanical design and engineering for developing products in various sectors. The visual system revolves around a series of pictograms drawn in a mechanical style. The same style is used for the logo.

Images by Sagmaister & Walsh
Images by Sagmaister & Walsh

In 2018, Eurosport commissioned London design agency DixonBaxi to develop all the graphics for its coverage of cycling’s grand tours  (the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a España). As part of this project, the agency created a series of pictograms to be used primarily on digital platforms.

Images by DixonBaxi
Images by DixonBaxi
Images by DixonBaxi

Sascha Lobe’s Pentagram team created graphics and wayfinding design for the headquarters of cosmetics company Amorepacific in Seoul. The pictograms blend in harmoniously with the architecture (designed by David Chipperfield) and creates a dialogue with both the English typography and with the Korean and Chinese ideograms. The project won various prizes, including the Beazley Design of the Year 2019.

Images by Pentagram Design
Images by Pentagram Design

As we’ve seen, pictograms have ancient origins. Their ancestors, pictorial signs, underwent many evolutions throughout history. As soon as pictograms were first formalised in the last century, they invaded our everyday lives. They are still widely used today, and the examples above give us an idea of their huge importance in many fields.