Icons, Pictograms And Symbols

Department of Transport pictograms showing various symbols as black outlines

Image Courtesy: Department of Transport

What’s the Difference?

Anyone involved in the world of wayfinding and sign design is likely to come across the terms pictogram, icon and symbol sooner rather than later. As jargon goes these terms, are pretty innocuous. Symbol as a word is pretty universal. Icon might be more strongly associated with religious artefacts or an exceptional individual than map design, but most will have a broad understanding of what it means in a wayfinding context. And even if they haven’t come across pictogram before, they’ll be able to make an educated guess.

In discussions it’s not unusual to hear two or even all three being used interchangeably to describe the same thing. Which begs the question do they mean the same thing? And if so are we guilty of using three different terms just to confuse?

Icon

I’ve always used icon to describe an image that represents something physical. So typically on a map it would be a graphic representation of a particular building – a facsimile of a landmark that somebody would be able to associate with the real thing.

Pictogram

Whereas a pictogram is a graphic used to communicate a concept or phrase that can be easily interpreted and understood. Arrows are good example of pictograms in action. A red circle with a diagonal red line crossing an arrow pointing left, represents the no left turn in the Highway Code. It’s a simple diagram that conveys an instruction that would take a short sentence to communicate.

A tourist map of London that includes a graphic representation of key visitor attractions

Image courtesy: tripindicator.com

Highway Code symbol for no left turn

Image courtesy: The Highwaty Code

Symbol

Strongly associated with the world of standards, a symbol is a graphic or pictogram that has been assigned with a formally accepted meaning. The connection between the graphic and the word or phrase it represents may not be so obvious and has to be learned. The signs used to communicate the whereabouts of toilets are a case in point. The male and female stick figures bear little resemblance to the physical representation of the place or the activities undertaken. Consistent use of these symbols on toilet facilities has resulted in a universal understanding of what they mean (although if used in isolation can be challenging for people suffering from cognitive disorders such as Alzheimer’s or Dementia).

Others may have a different take – certainly a quick Internet search doesn’t reveal anything too definitive on the subject. When it comes to communication context is key. In a wayfinding discussion – whether you use the word symbol, pictogram or icon, based on prior experience of using maps and signs to navigate, you’ll broadly understand what is being referred to. So does it really matter what we call them?