Non-standard use (color/shape) of DOT pictograms. Chicago Midway Airport, Chicago, IL.

Like a lot of bloggers, I track my site’s stats—hit counts, traffic patterns—and I noticed that a disproportionate number of the search queries people use to find my blog are about pictograms, those little symbol-signs used as visual shorthand for the tasks and objects we are likely to encounter during travel. (For some reason, this post about trash pictograms seems to be especially popular.)

So here’s a brief introduction to pictograms: The most iconic set of pictograms are the DOT pictograms. These were commissioned in the 1970s by the US Department of Transportation in an attempt to alleviate confusion between different pictogram sets in different venues. Before the DOT commission, different venues developed their own sets of pictograms, so “telephone” or “elevator” would be represented by a different symbol depending on where you were—the pictograms at LaGuardia were different from those at O’Hare were different from those at LAX, etc.  

At the DOT’s behest, the American Institute of Graphic Arts, now simply AIGA, reviewed 28 pictogram systems in use throughout the world—at airports, at stadia, at hospitals, at Olympic Games—evaluating each system for legibility and readability. (AIGA was concerned not only with how successfully a sign could convey its message, but also at what distance and at what size it could be read. That’s important for wayfinding, which is another post entirely.) Using this information, AIGA produced a total of 50 pictograms for the DOT, 34 in 1974 and another 16 in 1979.

The pictograms were released into the public domain in order to speed their adoption, and they remain copyright-free. The complete set of symbols is available online, through AIGA, in both .gif and .eps format.

There’s not a lot of secondary-source work on the pictogram, and the best resource for the history and development of the DOT pictograms is the report that the American Institute of Graphic Arts produced back in the 1970s. Symbol Signs, second edition, was published in 1993 by AIGA. (The full citation is: The Professional Association for Design for the U.S. Department of Transportation. Symbol signs, 2nd ed. New York: American Institute of Graphic Arts, 1993. The library of the nearest university is probably your best bet.)

The report is fascinating: There are tables upon tables of the different pictograms used by each of the pictogram families: 24 different pictograms for “telephone”, 40 or more for “restroom.” The report lays out, with remarkable clarity, the classifications and criteria used to determine the best format for a given pictogram. Reading the report is like going back in time, to when pictograms were part of a local culture, the local dialect of a commonly-understood speech.

As with most global standardizing movements, we’ve lost something in quest for efficiency, in our impulse to streamline, in our desire to standardize the way we communicate with the built environment. The clarity we’ve gained is (of course) more important than retaining confusing and outmoded sign systems, which is why the AIGA report is so valuable: through the report, the pictogram families survive as historical artifacts, as testament to the way we used to see.


More Louvre pictograms. The above three are all DOT standard, and direct patrons to an escalator or an elevator, depending on their ambulant condition. But where there is a slight elevation change and only handicapped patrons need to use an elevator, the Louvre improvises:


This pictogram draws on elements of the elevator pictogram—the arrows, the platform—but is not a part of the DOT set.

Accents, dialects, informalities: The way in which our visual systems speak.


The I. M. Pei Pyramid at the Musée du Louvre is one of the most architecturally distinctive buildings in Paris, and draws a lot of its meaning from its centrality within the Louvre. It is the entrance pavilion, the exit pavilion, the hub at the center of the museum’s diverse galleries and exhibits. The pyramid is an icon—both for the Louvre, and, cleverly, for the exit:


This is brilliant because it introduces a literal meaning to pictograms. All too often, pictograms are abstracted idealizations: An exit is a figure moving, a door, an arrow. In the Louvre, the pictogram for “exit” literally means “exit”. It is both universal and place-specific, balancing between the need to speak to a specific audience and the need to speak to the multinational members of the audience. The pyramid, already an icon for the museum, is abstracted and flattened into an icon of itself.

That the Louvre can invent its own pictograms speaks to the strength of the institution. You can do it, but it’s not a good idea, because it tends to hurt wayfinding significantly while aiding branding very little. The cleverness of the pyramid-as-exit pictogram is that it’s smart graphic design, but it’s not merely smart graphic design. It’s also smart wayfinding.


The always-delicate line between reality and make-believe. Signs prohibiting interaction with fake snow at Disneyland Resort Paris, articulated by a “no snowmen” illustration. The advantages of friendly illustration versus harsh pictogram, especially when conveying a less-than-friendly message.

See also Ralph Caplan’s thoughts on using signage to fill the design gap.


Sign in exit corridor at the Star Tours attraction. The attraction is themed as a spaceport, complete with travel posters for Bespin and Endor—and, of course, a consistent signage  system, with its own pictograms.

What’s interesting about this is that the suspension of disbelief only goes so far: The audience’s experience with the Star Wars universe is limited to the movies, so the pictograms for “ground transportation” and “droids” have to reference the movies, not the internal history of the Star Wars universe in order to be properly read. The landspeeder looks like it’s referencing an XP-38 or the X-34 (Luke Skywalker’s landspeeder), while the droid pictograms looks like it’s referencing an R2 unit (like R2-D2). But these are not the only form-factors possible for landspeeders or droids, and while it’s possible that the pictograms representing them are idealized abstractions of the most common type (much as the DOT pictogram for “car” is an idealized abstraction of a sedan) it’s more likely that the sign is meeting its audience half-way.

The landspeeder and droid are not DOT standard (naturally) but the baggage is:

Even in fantasy, the grains of reality; the enmeshment of lies and truth to build a compelling world. It’s theatre—complicated, three-dimensional theatre.


They’re everywhere, man. The infectious power of visual memes.

Notice also the Disney typeface and their attempt to humanize this barricade by draping a beige cloth over it.

Two papers down, two to go.

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