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What Pictograms Are and When You Should Use Them

You’ve seen pictograms, even if you didn’t know they were called that. Pictograms (also known as “pictographs” and often used synonymously with “icons”) are images that are used to represent data. Typically, pictograms appear today as flat-style, unicolored and simplified representations of concepts and objects.

Pictograms are used everywhere, especially in this digital age. You probably associate them with apps, charts and text content. For designers, they’re a very powerful tool because they can communicate a concept in one clean image. They’re small and contained enough to not take away from the overall design, but they can also be the central element in a design.

It’s common for infographics to make use of a pictogram. They present data in a fun and new way, and can be very effective for communicating a message in an emotionally evocative way.


They are also often used in news and blog articles to highlight particularly interesting or important data points. Pictograms are a great way to break up blocks of text—this gives readers a break and allows them to glean information easily.

Show a Tally

Remember back in elementary school, when your teacher would reward you and your classmates for your effort and good behavior by putting a sticker beside your name on a chart on the wall? Man, what a thrill. Did you know that the chart was, in fact, a pictogram?

In this case, one sticker represented one unit of data. That’s why pictograms will commonly have legends or labels to indicate their values.


Show a Comparison

Pictograms are a highly effective way of comparing two points. There are two general types of pictograms you can use to achieve this.


The first way is by volume of images, wherein each image represents a unit (like when showing a tally). For example:


The second way is by showing how much of both values make up a total. For example:


Replace a Word

Pictograms can often also be referred to as icons. In this case, the image used will be a simplified illustration of the concept. Think of the symbols for “men” and “women” on bathroom doors, or the multi-purpose checkmark. Think also of buttons on sites and apps. They’re part of our written language and you can recognize their meaning just by looking at them.


Remember that pictograms rely heavily on context to make sense. So unless the pictogram you use is a very common and easily recognizable symbol (like the symbol for human), you need to provide some context either through text or associated images.


For Branding

Virtually every company has its own logo—it’s part of cohesive branding. The prevalence of a company will determine how recognizable their icon is. Probably everyone is familiar with the Apple icon, for example.


Keep in mind, though, that once an image becomes established, you’re committed to it. When Uber changed their logo, 44% didn’t know what company the new logo represented.


Are there any other ways you use pictograms?

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