Updated: April 26, 2013
What are ideograms?
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, an ideogram is a character or symbol representing an idea or a thing or an idea but not a particular word or phrase for it.
Try this definition on for size. According to an excerpt from assigned reading this semester, an ideogram is a graphical symbol that represents and idea, rather than a group of letters arranged according to the phonemes of a spoken language, as is done in alphabetic languages.
Talk about a brain teaser. Need a break yet?
Let’s try this one more time. Wikipedia simplifies it best. An ideogram is a graphic symbol that represents an idea or concept.
I like to think of ideograms as a means of transcending a universal language. Many ideographic symbols represent the same ideas and concepts in different countries and provide a means of communication understood by many human beings. Even if we are in strange country where we do not speak the language, we can still possibly have a way of communicating with other human beings.
How did this concept come about?
There is a lot of ambiguity surrounding the history of ideograms. Spokane Falls Community cites cave paintings as being the first evidence of recorded pictures with actual written communication being developed by the Sumerians using simple drawings or pictograms.
Research findings from Dr. Elif Ayiter; designer, researcher and educator, credits the Chinese with being one of the early innovators of this concept.
While the research findings of this institution and individual researcher do not offer a clear consensus of who was the first to start this concept, both researchers credit the Egyptian hieroglyphics with being the innovators of this concept. Egyptian hieroglyphics fused graphics with alphabetic elements to form symbols that represented abstract concepts.
Early examples of ideograms included pictures of ox’s to represent food and Roman numerals. Yes Roman numerals! I, II and III represent fingers on the hand. V represents the open hand and IV represents the open hand minus one finger.
So how do we use ideograms today? Can you identify any of these common ideograms below?
Before I reveal the ideograms above, let’s see what the experts had to say.
I interviewed two individuals for this piece. Neither interviewee decided to include a picture.
Terra Cooke: Holds a Bachelor of Science in Network Security. She currently works as a Security Engineer.
Jaleesa Jones: Holds a Bachelor of Science in Computer Information Systems. She is currently pursuing a Master’s in Cyber Security and Assurance.
Each individual was asked these series of questions regarding ideograms.
1. What comes to mind when you hear the word ideogram? Are you familiar with this design concept?
Ms. Cooke: I’ve actually never heard of this concept before and not exactly sure what it is without Googling it.
Mrs. Jones: A type of picture that even an idiot can understand. I’m familiar with the type of pictures ideograms entail but I never knew the proper term for it.
2. Can you identify any of the ideograms above? If yes, please tell me what idea, concept or cause you identify each picture with. Where/when do you see these ideograms most often?
Ms. Cooke: Yes I identify and understand each of these ideograms. The first is a sign often seen while driving on the road meaning slippery when wet. It’s meant for drivers. The second is also a driving ideogram meaning there’s a slight bend in the road. The third is a sign seen many different places from around restaurants, buildings, and outside. It means no smoking. The last sign is often seen on airplanes meaning buckle your seat belt.
Mrs. Jones: Most of these ideograms are caution signals and letting people know their rights. I see these ideograms mostly on roadways and public places.
3. Are any of the above ideograms more identifiable than others? What are your thoughts on the effective/non-effective use of ideograms in advertising?
Ms. Cooke: They are all identifiable to me. One was recently used on social media platforms, particularly Facebook to support equal rights. The second shows different emoticons used on social networking sites or for texting and the last is another driving sign. One may be more identifiable than the other depending on the person. All people will recognize the driving sign but those that don’t indulge in social networking or digital communications are less likely to understand the other two. As a result, they could be less effective in advertising depending upon the intended audience.
Mrs. Jones: Yes, the signs seen in public places and roadways are much more identifiable than the equality and emoji signs.
4. Do you think ideograms are a good way to generate interest in organizations/causes? Why or why not?
Ms. Cooke: I think they are a good idea because seeing that sign or symbol gives the audience something to relate back to when referencing that company. When a person sees a blue soda can with a white and red circle, they probably think of Pepsi. If the organization is something someone feels strongly about, it will cause a more permanent resonance in the person’s life.
Mrs. Jones: I feel ideograms are a great way to generate interest because people love pictures and generally do not like to take the time out to read.
So, how did you do?
Are ideograms becoming the “new wave” of visual branding?
As Mrs. Jones pointed out, ideograms are a great way to generate interest especially for people that do not like to read. Ms. Cooke also offers great insight as to what happens when people simply cannot understand another language with her Pepsi example. Ideograms can transcend all boundaries with the effective use of symbolism and can boost visibility and clout for organizations around the world.
Think of ideograms, you have encountered over the years. Have they been effective? Are ideograms replacing the need for verbal advertising or does the use of ideograms by organizations enhance and strengthen brands?
If you still need more convincing, please view my elevator pitch on the importance of ideograms.