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Generative Pictographic Language project showcased at 'Scripts and Calligraphy: A Timeless Journey' exhibition, hosted by The Saudi Ministry of Culture in 2021.
Accreditation: Ahmed Ellaithy

19 - 20 September 2024

Virtual Conference

Photo: Elliot Goldstein © Smithsonian Institution

Symbol ’24: Icons for Society:
Past, Present & Future

An exploration of 40 years of Symbol Culture

2024 sees the 40th anniversary of Susan Kare's designs for Apple Macintosh's ground-breaking screen icons and 42 years since Scott Fahlman introduced his joke markers made from punctuation (Emoticons). Few could have predicted how much a part of our everyday life that emojis, emoticons, and icons would become. It is hard to fully comprehend the far-reaching extent to which they are now used to facilitate communication in areas such as science, healthcare and medicine. This two-day conference will bring together academics, researchers, historians and design practitioners working across a wide range of industries to present research and applications showing how icons are used to communicate within their areas of expertise, and debate the future of icons on screen, in print and in the environment. A key consideration will be to identify and share good practice in information design, AR/VR, AI/UX and fine art to best serve our wide audiences. 

The conference picks up on themes explored in Cooper Hewitt’s ‘Give me a Sign: The Language of Symbols’ exhibition (taking place from May 2023 – August 2024 in New York) which shows how our love affair with symbols and icons has developed using Henry Dreyfuss’s 1972 Symbol Sourcebook as a starting point. The conference takes the next step forward, demonstrating how emojis can be employed in worldwide applications involving healthcare, orientation, climate change, multiculturalism, diversity and inclusivity. It will end with an examination of the work of designers and artists who have been exploring universal communication and the place of AI. 

A virtual conference supported by the British Academy and The Wellcome Trust, organised by The Symbol Group

19 - 20 September 2024



19-20 September 2024

Tickets sales are now live

  • Thursday 19 September 2024

    The session will begin with an introduction to symbol culture, followed by presentations by symbol historians giving a background to the evolution of symbol to emoji, and how the technological development of the icon has both mirrored and changed the way we communicate with each other. It will conclude by offering a counterpoint to the possibility of a worldwide symbol language.

    Chair: Jason Forrest


    Nigel Holmes: Introduction to symbol culture
    Jason Forrest: Isotype and graphic language
    Dr Wibo Bakker: Almanac to Smartphone: half a millennium of symbol systems facilitating information access

    Panel discussion 15 minutes

    Dr María del Mar Navarro: Expanding Horizons: The Intersec%on of the Atlas of Society and Economy and Seis Años de Gobierno al Servicio de México

    Dr Sue Perks: Thoughts on universal language in Henry Dreyfuss’s Symbol Sourcebook
    Dr Emily M Orr: Our Search for Symbols at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum
    Dr Olivier Morin: On the Puzzle of Ideography

    Panel discussion followed by 15 mins break

    Day 1 Session 1
  • Thursday 19 September 2024

    The second session will explore the variety of ways that icons can be used in healthcare, public safety and well-being to facilitate patient understanding of complex medical issues including pain management and mental health, testing in the pharmaceutical industry and supporting orientation in hospitals. The session will end with a reflective overview of symbol culture asking if we have too many symbols in our lives. 

    Chair: Dr Karel van der Waarde

    Dr Karel van der Waarde: Icons and information about medicines
    Shuhan He, co-authors - Deborah Lai, Dr Kendrick Davis: Emoji for the medical community

    Panel discussion 15 minutes

    Prof Mandar Rane: Exploring the role of healthcare pictograms in the context of people living with ALS
    Sibylle Schlaich: Accessibility, identity and innovation in wayfinding

    Paul Mijksenaar: Too many symbols? Limitations, misunderstandings and challenges

    Panel discussion followed by 15 mins break

    Day 1 Session 2
  • Friday 20 September 2024

    Session one will start with the birth of the emoticon, leading on to Unicode and beyond. It will continue by exploring how icons and emojis are used to promote ideas around multiculturalism, diversity, inclusivity, climate change, and emergency way-finding systems.

    Chair: Rodrigo Ramirez

    Prof Scott E Fahlman: The Birth, Evolution and Spread of the Emoticon

    Prof Daniel Utz: Beyond Unicode – Emoji and other signs


    Panel discussion 15 minutes

    Marina Zurkow: Climate communication: how to fight the doom we ignore

    Jennifer 8. Lee: Representation on the Small Screen (vs Big Screen)
    Rodrigo Ramirez: Symbols + Narratives for Activating Emergencies


    Panel discussion followed by 15 mins break

    Day 2 Session 1
  • Friday 20 September 2024

    The final session will look at the future of icons in society and if they really provide a way forward for communication without words, concluding with an examination of the place of AI in symbol culture.

    Chair: Dr Wibo Bakker

    Xu Bing: Thinking and Creating Way Outside the Box: Xu Bing, China’s Most Contemporary Artist

    Edgar Walthert, Maxim Weirich: Society of Signs – An Assembly of Visual Language

    Juli Gudehus: Icon Spell – boosting a global visual language by collaborative intelligence

    Panel discussion 15 minutes

    Loïc Marleix: The rediscovery of the Lovers Communication Language

    Cesco Reale, Aiman Amine, Julie Blanchard, co-author Laura Meloni: IKON, language of icons: linguistic, graphic guidelines and ludic communication

    Dr Haytham Nawar: Generative Pictographic Language

    Panel discussion followed by 15 mins break

    Day 2 Session 1

Symposium Sessions

19-20 September 2024 - 10 am BST onwards 


  • Born in England in 1942, Nigel Holmes went to the Royal College of Art and worked as a freelance information graphics designer in London for 10 years before moving to the US in 1978 to work at Time Magazine, where he became Graphics Director. After 16 years at Time, he left to start his own information design business, Explanation Graphics. Clients have included Apple, Sony, American Express, Visa, GM, Nike, and such publications as National Geographic, The New York Times, Fortune, and

    The New Yorker. In 2009, the Society for News Design gave him its Lifetime Achievement Award, and in 2021 he was awarded the Ladislav Sutnar Award. He has written 11 books about graphics, including Crazy Competitions (2018), The Bigger Book of Everything (2020), and Joyful Infographic (2023).


    Introduction to symbol culture

    John Lennon (who would have turned 84 on October 9th this year) said, of his contentious relationship with Paul McCartney, ‘talking is the slowest form of communication. Music is much better.’ He knew that his medium gave him a way to get through to people. In our business, we’d substitute symbols for music.


    Pictorial messages have been around a lot longer than speech—didn’t human communication start with gestures and drawings on cave walls? 60,000 years later, we are still refining (and defining) pictorial language. We continue the effort to make clear exactly what we mean by our tiny black and white signs.


    Could those signs ever be truly universal? And do we want that? Different cultures have different ideas about pictorial meanings. Have translation apps that allow us to speak and read in any language pushed away the need for any symbols? No! Let’s invoke Lennon’s dictum and take up the challenge…pictorially!


    We are living in a symbol society.

  • Jason Forrest is a data visualization designer and writer living in New York City. He is the director of the Data Visualization Lab for McKinsey and Company. In addition to being on the board of directors of the Data Visualization Society, he is also the editor-in-chief of Nightingale: The Journal of the Data Visualization Society. He writes about the intersection of culture and information design and is currently working on a book about information communication.


    Isotype and graphic language

    As Isotype evolved from its roots in pictorial statistics to visual education, so did the use of icons in representing both abstract as well as increasingly specific aspects of human experience. This evolution didn't just impact education, journalism, advertising, and technology; it also influenced how communities and individuals communicated visually. As technology progressed from desktop computers to mobile devices, and design shifted from traditional to digital mediums, icons transformed into avatars, and Unicode symbols evolved into emojis. With the emergence of design guidelines and systems to accommodate large design teams, there remains a strong focus on using these methods for nuanced visual communication.

  • Wibo Bakker is a Dutch design researcher and educator with an interest in information design and design history. He has carried extensive research into the development of visual identities and pictograms and worked for over one and a half decade in academia.


    Almanac to Smartphone: half a millennium of symbol systems facilitating information access
    This research seeks to provide a better understanding of the use and nature of symbol systems. It focuses on the use of symbols in almanacs, comparing this with mobile phones. Arguably, almanacs were the first printed products to use symbol systems to highlight or rapidly access specific information. This research aims to explore several questions. For example: how do the symbols in these media relate to textual content and typography? Also: how does the medium's materiality –interactive screen or paper – influence the use and appearance of symbols? Finally: How was the use of symbols embedded in a wider sociocultural context? 

    The earliest almanacs are thousands of years old and go back to ancient Persia. At their core are calendars for astronomical events. However, their most recent incarnation is a result of the invention of printing. Almanacs became mass-produced compact printed publications, often containing additional tips for seasonal chores such as farming or housework as well. With the rise of the Industrial Revolution and the nation-state, some almanacs began to incorporate information about public transport or statistical data about countries. Over time almanacs became the ‘Jack of all trades’ of printing. Their popularity in Western countries was rivalled only by the Bible.

    Whereas almanacs were initially rather brief and focused, over time they diversified into lengthy transport, tourist, and municipal guides, in addition to providing overviews of news transforming into localized mini-encyclopedias for everyone. Nevertheless, from the beginning onwards, the use of symbols in almanacs helped to reduce information density as a whole and facilitated the accessibility and legibility of these publications. The most comparable symbol systems nowadays can be found in smartphones, in terms of form, content, and use. Just like almanacs, smartphones are pocketable, the main personal source of knowledge of society at large, representing the technological pinnacle of their era. 

  • María del Mar Navarro is Associate Professor of Visual Communication Design, at the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts at Arizona State University, USA, and Ph.D. Fellow at the University of Arizona, USA. Maria del Mar has taught visual communication design practice, research, and theory in higher education internationally for over a decade. Her research focuses on the historical and contemporary practices of visual communication, specifically in pictographic numeracy, contributing to the understanding of the development and application of visual languages in different cultural contexts.


    Expanding Horizons: The Intersection of the Atlas of Society and Economy and Seis Años de Gobierno al Servicio de México.

    In the history of the International System of Typographic Education and its international efforts to distribute its pictorial statistics methods there is an overlooked yet profoundly impactful collaboration between Otto and Marie Neurath and the Lázaro Cárdenas government during the 1930s. In examining the relationship between ‘Seis años de gobierno al servicio de México, 1934–1940’ published in 1940 and the seminal work ‘Atlas of Society and Economy’, published in 1930, this presentation seeks to broaden the narrative of Isotype’s historical evolution and international dissemination.


    While the Neuraths' international collaborations have been studied, the profound connection between the Isotype method and the Mexican government remains largely unexplored. ‘Seis años de gobierno al servicio de México’ represents an exemplary utilization of pictorial statistics to communicate governmental initiatives, mirroring the earlier efforts showcased in the "Atlas of Society and Economy."


    This presentation will shed light on the specific techniques employed in both works, emphasizing how Isotype's visual language was adapted and employed to effectively communicate the Cárdenas governmental reforms. By unveiling this lesser-known collaboration, the discourse aims to contribute to the history of Isotype and information design.


    Moreover, this exploration expands the geographic and political reach of Isotype, making its application more inclusive and diverse. Understanding the historical depth of Isotype's engagement with the Mexican government not only enriches the discourse surrounding information visualization but also accentuates the importance of cultural exchange and transnational collaborations in shaping the evolution of visual communication methodologies.


    This presentation seeks to bring forth an insightful narrative that intertwines Isotype with the governmental initiatives of Mexico during the mid-20th century, furthering our comprehension of the global impact and adaptability of the visual language of pictograms.

  • Sue is a UK based archival researcher, writer and designer with a particular interest in Isotype, communication through symbols and how archives connect with each other. Her current research centres on the Henry Dreyfuss Symbol Sourcebook Archive at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York. In 2022 she co-founded The Symbol Group


    Thoughts on universal language in Henry Dreyfuss’s Symbol Sourcebook

    In 1972 Henry Dreyfuss published his Symbol Sourcebook, the result of a lifetime spent working with symbols. Correspondence in the Henry Dreyfuss archive at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, New York, demonstrates his passion for symbols, to facilitate functionality, transcend language barriers and attempt to establish a form of universal language, recurrent themes from 1960–1970. This is characterized by the growth of internationalism in the west, driven by increased wealth post WW2, leading to greater affordability of international travel. World Expos and Olympic meetings flourished, encouraging mobility, and airports needed to respond to passengers who could not understand languages different to their

    mother tongue. 

    In contrast to the rise of western prosperity and internationalist ideas, was the threat of nuclear disaster prompted by the Cold War. Communication through symbols was considered as a significant medium to foster international peace and attempt to establish a form of universal language. In response, organizations such as UNESCO, United Nations, and the Fund for Advancement of Education were supporting projects promoting peace and internationalism, and United Nations celebrated their 20th anniversary by naming 1965 ‘International Co-operation Year’. Consequently, attempts to ‘break the language barrier’ and find a universal way to communicate using symbols formed a common theme for designers and symbol commentators during the 1960s, to encourage both peace and prosperity. Dreyfuss and his inner circle formed a significant part of this drive, evidenced by Print magazine (1969) ‘Special Issue on International Signs and Symbols’ with guest editor FHK Henrion President of ICOGRADA, featuring the most prominent symbol communicators of the time. 

    This presentation will examine Dreyfuss’s place within this international movement to create a universal language using symbols by reviewing key documents that evoke the spirit of the 1960s written by important symbol commentators of the time. 

  • Dr Emily M Orr is Associate Curator and Acting Head of Product Design and Decorative Arts at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. Her exhibitions include ‘Give Me a Sign: The Language of Symbols’ (2023-present), ‘Underground Modernist: E. McKnight Kauffer’ (2021-22), and ‘Botanical Expressions’ (2019-21). Orr is the author of ‘Designing the Department Store: Display and Retail at the Turn of the Twentieth Century’ (2019).


    Our Search for Symbols at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum 
    The exhibition ‘Give Me a Sign: The Language of Symbols’ (on view at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum through August 11, 2024) marks the 50th anniversary of designer Henry Dreyfuss’s Symbol Sourcebook: An Authoritative Guide to International Graphic Symbols (1972), a manual that compiled and categorized thousands of symbols in use internationally. ‘Give Me a Sign’ draws from the working papers of the Symbol Sourcebook housed in Cooper Hewitt’s Henry Dreyfuss Archive; visitors can engage with this primary material across many different modes of interaction to explore the importance of symbols in our daily lives. Opportunities to learn from primary sources are present through imagery, video, text, touch, movement, and participation in the design process. 

    Henry Dreyfuss hoped that the Symbol Sourcebook would be a tool for the creation of new symbols. He envisioned that the resource would grow to represent the perspectives of more users and designers. In this collaborative spirit, visitors to ‘Give Me a Sign’ are invited to design their own symbols and co-create a Symbol Sourcebook of 2024 in Cooper Hewitt’s galleries. An interactive light table includes advice on the visual elements that make up symbols, provides tracing and drawing tools, and features a spinner with prompts for fresh ideas. Visitors are producing symbols for causes they care about, places they love, and offering ideas for warnings and messages of all kinds.  The origin story of the Symbol Sourcebook is inspiring visitors to take a critical look at symbols now and explore their evolution and future.

  • Olivier Morin is a CNRS researcher at the Institut Jean Nicod (PSLUniversity, Paris). His research focuses on cultural transmission and its cognitive prerequisites. His book, How Traditions Live and Die (2016), seeks to explain the long-term survival of culturally evolved practices. His more recent work focuses on the cultural evolution of graphic communication – the human ability to transmit information by means of images. His publications span anthropology, cognitive science, and behavioral ecology.


    On the The Puzzle of Ideography
    An ideography is a general-purpose code made of pictures that do not encode language, which can be used autonomously – not just as a mnemonic prop – to encode information on a broad range of topics. Why are viable ideographies so hard to find? I contend that self-sufficient graphic codes need to be narrowly specialized. Writing systems are only an apparent exception: at their core, they are notations of a spoken language. Even if they also encode non-linguistic information, they are useless to someone who lacks linguistic competence in the encoded language or a related one. The versatility of writing is thus vicarious: writing borrows it from spoken language. Why is it so difficult to build a fully generalist graphic code? The most widespread answer points to a learnability problem. We possess specialized cognitive resources for learning spoken language, but lack them for graphic codes. I argue in favor of a different account: what is difficult about graphic codes is not so much learning or teaching them as getting every user to learn and teach the same code. This standardization problem does not affect spoken or signed languages as much. Those are based on cheap and transient signals, allowing for easy online repairing of miscommunication, and require face-to-face interactions where the advantages of common ground are maximized. Graphic codes lack these advantages, which makes them smaller in size and more specialized. 

  • Dr Karel van der Waarde studied graphic design in the Netherlands (BA) and in the UK (MA & PhD). He combines a commercial Graphic Design – Research consultancy in Belgium (Designing and testing information about medicines), teaching (BA, MA, and PhD level), and research (visual argumentation & reflective practice).



    Situation: Information about medicines is an absolute necessity for patients, healthcare professionals, and carers. Without information, it is impossible to consider the benefits of a medicine, to use it effectively, and to dispose of it safely. Relevant information about medicines is notoriously hard to find, difficult to read and interpret, and often problematic to use. Visuals, and especially pictograms, are often suggested, designed, and used to enable people to act appropriately. 

    Question: In which situations and for which actions is there evidence that pictograms have benefits for patients? In other words: ‘are we really sure that pictograms support the safe and effective use of medicines’?

    Approach: Three different approaches are used. The laws, guidelines, and regulations about medicines were checked to find out what kinds of pictograms are allowed. The second approach is a comparison of some collections of pictograms that are used in practice and appear on packaging. And the third approach is an analysis of seven peer reviewed and published structured reviews.

    Results:  The results of the inquiry shows that the regulations assume that pictograms are beneficial and allow for their use in information about medicines. However, pictograms are very rarely approved because they can be incorrectly interpreted. Criteria to approve pictograms are missing. The collections of pictograms show that designers believe that the production of even more pictograms is beneficial. There are however no systematic ways to select and evaluate pictograms to determine if they are suitable in a specific context. It is difficult and time consuming to choose pictograms and there is little support available. The comparison of the systematic reviews indicate that these reviews are very seriously flawed. Many articles do not show the pictograms, and this makes it impossible to evaluate an experimental study. The visual qualities and contexts of included studies varies so substantially that they are impossible to relate on a single scale.

    Conclusion:  The legislation, practice, and literature show that pictograms

    are used to inform people about medicines. There are some indications that pictograms are effective in some limited ways in some contexts. However, these three sources usually grossly overestimate the effects and benefits of pictograms.

    In order to benefit patients, it is necessary to increase the use of visual information from a limited focus on pictograms to all visuals. This visual information must be integrated into an information strategy that combines both paper and digital resources. Visuals need to be accompanied by text, and clearly focus on a single activity. The main conclusion is that information about medicines needs to be developed in co-operation with people who use medicines in specific contexts.

  • Shuhan He, MD is a dual-board certified physician with expertise in Emergency Medicine and Clinical Informatics. He works at the Laboratory of Computer Science, clinically in the Department of Emergency Medicine and Assistant professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School. He serves as the Program Director of Healthcare Data Analytics at MGHIHP and has interests at the intersection of acute care and computer science with a focus on patient centric technologies.

    Co-authors: Deborah Lai, BA, CEO, Act Now Coalition and Dr Kendrick Davis PhD health sciences associate clinical professor of psychiatry and neuroscience at UC Riverside


    Emoji for the Medical Community

    ‘Emoji for the Medical Community’ delves into a novel approach towards enhancing communication in healthcare through the utilization of emojis. It centers on the essential role of patient-reported outcomes and introduces the concept of integrating emoji language as a means to facilitate clearer patient-provider communication. This approach is particularly focused on accurately conveying patient experiences, such as pain levels and other subjective symptoms.

    The discussion provides an overview of the historical and scientific development of emojis, emphasizing their growing importance in digital communication. The presentation introduces the Emoji-based Visual Analog Scale (EbVAS), a new method devised to evaluate patient-reported outcomes in a more relatable manner. This scale is designed to be in harmony with existing pain assessment tools like the numeric scale and the Wong-Baker FACES Pain Rating Scale, but with a unique attribute of being digital, open-source, and universally comprehensible.

    We then progress to explore patient-centered outcomes and the potential of emojis to increase the accuracy and effectiveness of patient feedback in clinical settings. It highlights the universal and intuitive appeal of emojis, which can transcend language and cultural barriers, offering a more holistic view of patient experiences.

    We delve into multiple studies in medicine where we explore the alignment between the EbVAS and traditional methods of pain assessment. This evidence points towards the transformative role of emojis in redefining the communication of pain and other subjective health conditions in the medical field.

    Furthermore, the presentation addresses the larger context of integrating emojis into medical communications, exploring the challenges and opportunities in creating a standardized set of medical emojis. This includes considerations for diversity, such as skin tone variations and the representation of different organ systems, and the efforts being made to collaborate with organizations like the Unicode Consortium and various medical societies.

    The presentation concludes with a forward-looking perspective, emphasizing ongoing efforts and future plans for the development and application of emojis in healthcare. The ultimate goal is to establish a more inclusive and effective framework for communication in healthcare, leveraging the simple yet expressive nature of emojis.

    In this talk, we offer an innovative view on improving patient communication and reporting in healthcare settings. It underscores the value of digital innovations in overcoming traditional challenges in patient-provider interactions and advocates for the integration of emoji language as a transformative tool in medical practices.

  • Mandar Rane is a Professor of Communication Design at the IDC School of Design, IIT Bombay, India. His focus concerns theoretical aspects of communication theory and its practical application in the context of message design.

    You can learn more about his academic as well as professional work on his website: 

    Communication Design Principles:


    Exploring the role of healthcare pictograms in the context of people living with ALS

    ALS (Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) is a motor neuron disease due to progressive nerve cell degeneration in the spinal cord and brain. As motor neurons degenerate and die, people living with ALS lose voluntary control of muscles, affecting their movement of arms and legs. Advanced stages affect clear speech or even loss of speech and, eventually, trouble breathing. Such situations create a communication barrier between people living with ALS and caregivers/families. However, ALS does not affect the person's intelligence, thinking, seeing or hearing. Our observation and interaction with the caregivers confirmed that establishing communication concerning people with ALS daily needs requires enormous time and effort. Currently, caregivers and people with ALS communicate through coded gestures, personalised visual charts, or adapted makeshift solutions developed over time—however, such arrangements collapse when the caregiver is not in the vicinity. This dependency makes people with ALS helpless, as they cannot communicate their daily needs, such as asking for food, requirements of hygiene and sanitation or help with movement. 

    This paper shares a technology-enabled solution to facilitate communication between caregivers and people living with ALS, especially those who lose voluntary control of muscles and have slurred speech. The proposed prototype is an augmented reality headgear for people with ALS, allowing them to communicate with the caregiver in his absence. This wearable headgear enables people with ALS to observe their surroundings in real-time and communicate their primary needs with the help of pictograms on screen. Using an inbuilt eye-tracking device in the headgear, a 3-second stare at the need-based pictogram can allow people with ALS to connect with a remote caregiver. Caregiver receives a mobile phone alert and attends the request. This communication possibility opens tremendous opportunities for designers to think of standardising repetitive messages as pictorial conversations. Further, to investigate pictograms' role and ability to act as a visual language. The aim is to outline the characteristics of pictograms concerning their current static appearances versus possible manifestations in an interactive space. This paper demonstrates this by visualising the use cases of pictorial interactions revealed by researching the daily needs of people with ALS. 

  • Sibylle Schlaich co-founded Moniteurs in 1994 – a Berlin-based design office specializing in way-finding and information design. Together with her partner Heike Nehl and the Moniteurs team, they work on way-finding projects for airports, museums, corporate headquarters and hospitals, like the Charité in Berlin and the Braunschweig Municipal Hospital that is currently being transformed into one of the biggest Central Hospitals in Germany.


    Accessibility, identity and innovation in way-finding

    In hospitals, way-finding plays a crucial role in guiding patients and visitors safely and efficiently through; especially people in stressful and worrying situations, for patients in challenging life situations and with limited options for action. Failing to find destinations or not showing up on time, e.g. at the scheduled point-of-care, sometimes leads to time delays, additional travel distances and costly search activities. Way-finding pictograms play a significant role in helping to better overcome these challenges. They are also an opportunity to communicate in a more accessible way, to strengthen the design identity of the respective hospital and to promote innovative services if they are understood. 

    More accessible through international comprehensibility

    Pictograms are important in hospital way-finding because, unlike written words that may not be read in different languages or scripts, they are more universally understood and do not require language translation. This is particularly advantageous in an environment where many patients and visitors may not understand the local language. The quick comprehensibility of pictograms by the human eye is another crucial factor, as they allow people to find their way without having to spend precious time and energy deciphering text. Also, difficult terminology, often used in hospitals, can be displayed in a more space-saving way than in text form.

    Strengthening design and identity with pictograms

    Pictograms in hospitals are not only functional, but they can also carry the design identity of the respective hospital into the building. The visual design of pictograms can reflect the values, philosophy and character of the hospital. By choosing colors, shapes and style, pictograms can be made memorable and unique, this helps to strengthen the hospital's identity. Patients and visitors develop an emotional connection to the facility in this way, as they are in a familiar and appealing environment.

    In addition to the static signs of the way-finding system, dynamic devices that offer individual orientation to the respective user are increasingly finding their way into hospitals. Smartphone users are already used to communicating with icons. It is a matter of course for them to read clinic-specific pictograms in the case of in-house navigation.

    Supporting innovation with pictograms

    Hospitals are subject to constant change and innovation. They evolve to meet the needs of their users. In this context, pictograms play an important role, as they not only communicate the classic destinations, such as registration, toilets or parking spaces, but can also more easily highlight innovative services such as parking spaces with charging stations, gender-neutral toilets or automatic check-ins. A digital in-house navigation system offers patients and visitors the best, individualised route to desired destinations via the corresponding vertical development, via stairs, escalators or lifts, which can be represented with pictograms. This improves the patient and visitor experience. Pictograms serve as visual anchors to draw users' attention to the opportunity to interact with new technologies and facilitate the connection to the information and services offered.

  • Amsterdammer, born and bred (1944).
    Trained as industrial designer but changed to information design. Inspired by the work of Jock Kinneir (British road signs, 1963) he lost his heart on way-finding. Taught at Delft University for over thirty years, which he combined for a short period as designer at Total Design. Started his own office Bureau Mijksenaar (Amsterdam, New York) in 1986 and retired in 2014 but remains active as designer, publicist and consultant. One of his best known publications is Visual Function, a scholarly introduction to information design.


    Too many symbols? Limitations, misunderstandings and challenges

    Italy, around 1895: cyclist’s association Touring Club Italiano introduces the very first road signs. Other countries soon follow.


    Rather than to overcome language barriers, road signs were introduced to provide drivers of vehicles that were able to move significantly faster than carriages with instant information and timely warnings.

    In 1934, Viennese economist and sociologist Otto Neurath (1882-1945) designed a visual language called Isotype. Consisting of pictograms, it was intended to transfer knowledge without language barriers. Neurath used it to spread economic knowledge among a large, often uneducated audience. He felt that he would best succeed by enlisting the help of the best illustrators, German artist Gerd Arntz (1900-1988) being the most famous. Neurath’s work, which is kept in the archives of, for instance, the University of Reading and the Haags Gemeentemuseum (the Netherlands), reveals the huge influence Gerd Arntz had and still has on contemporary designers

    of symbols.

    After the success of the road signs, the opportunities offered by language-free communication were also recognized by the International Olympic Committee (IOC). Since 1948, it has commissioned the design of many sets of beautiful sports symbols for each of its four-yearly Games.

    Next, the Union Internationale de Chemins de fer (UIC) appreciated that passengers travelling by train could really benefit from uniform symbols. Then came a breakthrough initiated by the manufacturers of, among other things, electronics (Philips), white goods (Siemens) and automobiles (Toyota). Companies were especially enamoured by the economic advantages. Using only symbols on their products meant they could sell them anywhere in the world, bypassing the need to store up large quantities of goods per linguistic region. However, the users lost out. They were confronted with hefty multilingual manuals in which they had to look up the meanings of many visual puzzles (and try to remember them).

    But the compactness of symbols turned out to be of great value to product designers. Symbols easily fit on small controls in cars, on mobile phones and on computer screens. Once you know the meaning of the symbols on the dashboard of your own car, you can effortlessly drive off in a

    Japanese rental.

    Enthusiasm for symbols is high, especially among designers. The possible uses of symbols appear unlimited. A warning, however, is in order.

    By definition, symbols aren’t self-explanatory but have to be learned. This isn’t a problem for motorists, because they have to study them to pass their driving test. But things are different for users of airports, train stations and hospitals. You can hardly expect this group of users to take a test on symbolism first . . .

    That’s why the people that create symbols – and in many cases these aren’t designers – look for symbols that represent the function they designate in an associative or concrete manner.

    This works in many cases, but unfortunately it fails in even more often. People that don’t know what a diseased kidney looks like won’t recognize the pictogram for the Renal Unit that some hospitals use. People that have never seen a deer before won’t understand the road sign with a picture of a jumping deer on it that presents a warning for crossing wildlife. A boar, a fox or a bear may also pop up in front of your car. Here, the association with a safari park is more obvious . . .

    Symbols work best if they have a visual relationship with concrete and tangible objects in our environment. But they still have to be learned.

    For symbols to develop into an international visual language they must be learned, either by means of instruction or simply by trial and error, something that children are especially good at. In wayfinding, therefore, meaning is often also expressed in text, in support of symbols. It may seem excessive, but it’s very useful to people seeing those symbols for the very first time . . .

    A second aspect that symbol designers have to take into account is the increasing use of electronic devices. More and more often, these are capable of rendering instructions in the mother tongue of the individual user. This means that symbols designed to overcome language barriers are no longer necessary: people can just choose their own language. And as long as spoken and written languages are superior in human communication, the role of symbols is reduced to match their aptitude for compactness. Their sole remaining advantage is that they can be read from a great distance (road signs, way-finding) and that they fit onto very small surfaces (keys, displays)!

    But there is hope, too! Apart from closed series of symbols (road sign and safety symbols) there are millions of symbols that almost everybody recognizes and understands thanks to the Internet. Symbols for card games, for weather reports, cartoon characters, emoticons: too many to mention.

    Detached from their origins, they are used to render all kinds of notions very quickly: a hare and a tortoise for fast and slow, a heart for love, a red cross for emergency services, a cloud for online storage, and keyboard punctuation marks to make a joke or express disappointment. For designers that are aware of limitations on the one hand and opportunities on the other, there is an unlimited future in new symbols.

  • Scott E Fahlman is a Professor Emeritus of Language Technologies and Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.  He received his PhD degree in Artificial Intelligence from MIT in 1977.  Dr. Fahlman is a Fellow of the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence (AAAI).


    As a researcher, Dr. Fahlman is primarily interested 

    in Artificial Intelligence and its applications. He has worked in many areas of AI: planning, knowledge representation and reasoning, image processing, natural language processing, document classification, artificial neural networks, and the use of massively parallel machines to solve AI problems.  


    He is currently writing a book on a symbolic, knowledge-based approach to commonsense AI, as an alternative to the unreliable and amazingly inefficient ‘Large Language Models’ that are currently generating so much excitement.


    The Birth, Spread, and Evolution of the Smiley Emoticon
    The :-) ‘smiley’ and :-( ‘frowny’ emoticons are now very familiar to users of the Internet, Email, and social media. I first suggested that we use these character-based symbols for online communication in a message that I posted on a Carnegie Mellon University online ‘bulletin board’ on September 19, 1982. At the time I was a young faculty member in CMU’s Department of Computer Science, doing research on AI.

    The posting of this message is considered by many, including the Guinness Book of World Records, to be the birth of ‘the digital emoticon’, though the term ‘emoticon’ was coined years later — I don’t know by whom. My silly idea of using text characters to make little faces ‘went viral’ on the primordial computer networks of the day, long before ‘going viral’ was a thing. The Internet was created in the U.S. that very year, and whenever a new site was added to the network, the emoticons soon took root there.  
    This led to the development of many more text-based emoticons. And then in the 1990s (when the technology was ready to support it) the emoticon idea gave rise to the thousands of graphical emoji that are used today by people in every country of the world, as part of their daily lives. By most estimates, emoticons and emojis are now used several billion times every day.
    In this talk I will describe why and how the idea of text-based emoticons popped up, how they spread all around the world, and how they mutated as they spread. I’ll also say a bit about what the future might hold for these symbols, and whether they might ultimately evolve into a complete graphical language, replacing text in at least some instances.

  • Daniel Utz is a professor in the Communication Design programme at the HfG Schwäbisch Gmünd. His teaching focus is on typography, information design and visual identity systems. Together with his colleague Benedikt Groß, many students and external collaborators he developed the Open Source Emoji System ‘OpenMoji’. As an independent designer he mainly works on sign systems: Pictograms and icons, but also letters and typefaces, such as the font ‘Netto’ (now available at TypeMates).


    Beyond Unicode – Emoji and other Signs

    When developing our open source emoji system ‘OpenMoji’ we adhered to the generally binding standard: Unicode. Although there are lots of emoji (many of them in different versions), we soon reached the limits of the system. Many basic things are missing: Unicode defines a ‘Bottle with Popping Cork’ (U+1F37E) or a ‘Baby Bottle’ (U+1F37C). But there is no universal, generic bottle. Let alone any abstract vessel or container. Things get even more difficult when you leave the area of emoji and look for icons or symbols. These are distributed across many different Unicode Blocks and their sorting is often erratic.

    This leads us to the following theses and questions:

    • A distinction between emoji, icons and symbols is actually pointless, as the transitions between the categories are fluid. How could a practical database be structured that represents different icons equally?

    • A generally valid classification of characters is not possible. Which alternative categories, tags and sorting options would make sense?

    • How detailed should individual characters be presented: short description, basic graphic elements included, history, usage, variants,

    related characters, ...

    • What should the platform contain? Just a character catalogue with descriptions? Generic vector outlines? Examples from different design systems?

    • Who would be interested in such a platform? Communication, interface or information designers? Normal people? Which features would be important for different user groups?

    • In which directions could such a platform evolve? Unicode, Wikipedia or something completely different?

  • Artist Marina Zurkow connects people to

    nature-culture tensions and environmental messes, using technologies to foster intimate multispecies and geophysical connections. Zurkow co-founded several initiatives, including We Have Questions (with Abigail Simon), Dear Climate (with Una Chaudhuri), More&More Futures (with Sarah Rothberg), and Climoji (with Viniyata Pany). Most recently, More&More Futures’ WHAT IF? was featured at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and Climoji is presently part of ‘Give Me a Sign’ at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. She is a John Simon Guggenheim Fellow, represented by bitforms gallery, and resides in the Hudson Valley, New York.


    Climate communication: how to face the doom we ignore

    Climoji is a collection of unconventional (non-unicode) emoji that describe the causes, symptoms, and potential ways to address climate change. Two sets—‘Disasters’ and ‘Resilience’— were created by Marina Zurkow and Viniyata Pany in 2017 and designed by Manuja Waldia and Anna Lin. 

    Emoji are nuggets of information, not exactly language (the way we think of a noun or a verb), but more like a ‘visual language suitcase.’  Emoji are highly compressed and can be unpacked in multiple ways. Consider the ways yoga and meditation have been taken up culturally as emoji (these two symbols were somewhat recently adopted as part of the Unicode lexicon of ‘official’ keyboard emojis). They are used to generally convey a sense of calm, or activities that signify self-help and healing, self-awareness, even enlightenment, and sometimes they are used ironically. Huge concepts. As counterintuitive as it seems, an emoji that can hold broader meanings—or be used as a sarcastic instrument—is a successful byte of culture. 
    Climate change is dire, dour, and extremely hard to summarize in a single image. Try it!
    Unicode’s gatekeepers want single-image concepts. In addition, climate change has been considered a ‘political issue,’ and therefore verboten. Missing from the emoji vernacular are the symptoms and results of climate chaos. Biodiversity loss is missing. Ecological grief is missing. Plastic waste is missing. Climate chaos is not political. And it isn't one thing: it is an umbrella for a confluence of systemic disorders, ruptures, collapses. Rodrigo Ram
    Being able to use the funny, awkward, goofy, gleeful, and compact language of emoji to convey, let’s say ‘My brother drives his gas-guzzling car’ (car with exhaust emoji) and that is killing the planet (dead penguin emoji) makes a sad, horrible, fact pithy and palatable. But that does not take away the seriousness of the underlying message. Emoji are chipper, chirpy, and fun— but many people have gloom and doom exhaustion, and no way to communicate their concerns in an everyday, shorthand way— the way they can about other forms of anxiety.
    While these icons will never make their debut in the Unicode official emoji lexicon, they were downloaded as sticker packs by over 15,000 people for use on Android and iOS. The Climoji project is currently featured in the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum’s ‘Give Me a Sign’ exhibition in New York, and have garnered the (albeit fleeting) attention of Greenpeace, the United Nations, and press outlets as diverse as The Washington Post and Breitbart.

    Marina Zurkow will present the Climoji work, methodology, and outputs.

  • Jennifer 8. Lee is an entrepreneur, documentary producer, journalist, seed investor, and emoji activist. She is a member and former vice chair of the Unicode Emoji Subcommittee and a co-founder of Emojination, a grassroots organization whose motto is ‘emoji by the people, for the people.’ Emojination’s work has been collected by the Smithsonian's Cooper Hewitt Design Museum. She has co-led an Angel List seed investment fund for Y Combinator, was a 2018 Fast Company Most Creative Person in Business, and is a Sundance Sloan fellow. She is co-founder and CEO of Plympton, a literary studio that innovates in digital publishing.


    How Emoji Do (and Don’t) Mirror Our World

    Emoji serve as digital mirrors on the keyboard in a world that is increasingly reliant on electronic communications. But does the public's ability to propose new emoji to Unicode democratize digital representation, empowering individuals to see their identities and cultures reflected in global communication? The demand for diverse emoji underscores a universal desire for representation, where every person feels seen and acknowledged in the digital landscape. The inclusion of emojis featuring various skin tones, hairstyles, gender-neutral options, and cultural symbols (e.g., hijab, mate, sikh, and sari) prompt on-going discussions about how much can Unicode code points accommodate. The pause in additional flag emoji highlights this tension, especially among those who want flags that are not of U.N. recognized countries/territories (NATO, ASEAN, Pan-African). The discussion over the family emoji, and its endless permutations, also highlights the difficulties of the keyboard trying to be exhaustively inclusive.  

    This all raises the question of where to draw the line in representation within the emoji library. Is the solution potentially to push the flexibility of ‘emoji’ that are not set by Unicode? 

  • Rodrigo Ramírez is an Associate Professor at the School of Design, UC Chile (Diseño UC). He is

    also a researcher at the Chilean National Research Center for Integrated Disaster Management,

    CIGIDEN, and a student in the Doctoral Program at UC Chile Faculty of Communications. He is also a founder of the Design Network for Emergency Management ( and the design leader for the Guemil project, an open-source set of symbols for crises and emergencies ( Rodrigo has an MA Information Design from Reading University, UK. His interests are typography and information design, crossing both practice and research. He has collaborated in information and type design research and designed for brands, public organizations, and publications.


    Symbols + Narratives for Activating Emergencies

    An important part of everyday life is interacting with visual information. Here, the integration of graphic elements such as symbols, signs, and pictorial instructions helps people to visualize contents, follow procedures and make decisions. However, events such as emergencies transform such a normality into a disruptive, complex experience, generating uncertainty, communication gaps, and at the same time, large information needs.

    Information design emerges as a multidisciplinary field that connects efficient communication and effectiveness to manage everyday interactions (Pontis and Babwahsingh, 2023). It contributes to making information visible, understandable, and easy to transfer into action. Emergencies can be considered as an extreme workfield for Information Design. Articulated by principles such as Crisis Communication (Coombs, 2011), and documents such as Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR, 2015, 2017) Disaster Risk and Emergency Management are instruments for emergencies, that contribute to shifting the paradigm from disaster response towards risk management, establishing priorities for action, among them communicating and understanding hazards (Robinson, 2017).

    As van Manen et al (2023) state, Design principles can be integrated into Emergency Management bringing certainty, and contributing to mitigating critical experiences. Visual communication tools can make a difference in seeing and helping to understand communications for actions that enhance preparedness, safety or recovery from a disaster. Visuals such as symbols, are widely applied to display opportune information for warnings. However, they also lack measuring their performance. One initiative of open-source symbols for emergencies is Guemil, focused on making the discussion about disaster risk and emergency more accessible and inclusive. Designed as information tools based in evidence, Guemil icons are permanently tested (Ramírez, 2018, 2022).

    This presentation in Symbol ’24 Symposium introduces an experimental application of Guemil symbols and sequential narratives, called ‘Information Activators for Emergencies’. This is an experimental set of graphic pieces that displays an emergency scenario where symbols and texts are combined sequentially in steps, to visualize critical information and activate how to proceed. Elements from storytelling and instructional design allow the integration of different messages and levels of information to be distributed in both printed and digital media.

  • Xu Bing was born in Chongqing, China in 1955 and raised in Beijing. He enrolled in the Printmaking Department of the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing in 1977, completed his studies in 1981, and later joined the faculty. He earned his master's degree in 1987 was invited to the United States as an honorary artist in 1990. In 2007, he returned to China and assumed several leadership roles at the Central Academy of Fine Arts, including Vice President, professor, and supervisor of doctoral students. Currently, he divides his time between Beijing and New York. Xu Bing's work has been displayed in numerous prestigious venues around the world, and he has been the recipient of several esteemed awards.


    Thinking and Creating Way Outside the Box: Xu Bing, China’s Most Contemporary Artist

    Xu Bing is one of the most celebrated and imaginative contemporary artists in China and the world today. He will preview his current project to launch an ‘art rocket’ into space, as well as review some of his past astounding productions of sculptures, videos, installations and books, notably Book from the Ground and Book from The Sky.

  • Edgar Walthert is a type designer with a strong interest in icons and visual language. His research-based posters express this dedication. He hosts public talk formats at and is co-founder of the platform He also develops websites and pushes the boundaries of variable fonts in his type foundry Font Spectrum.


    Maxim Weirich works as an exhibition designer in Berlin. His research interests circle around pictograms of the early 1970s and how they paved the way for today's communication of emotions through pictograms. By developing participatory formats like workshops, exhibitions, talks, and websites, he wants to examine these ideas and visual concepts of the past and bring them into the present for discussion.



    Society of Signs – An Assembly of Visual Language

    The project is dedicated to the exploration and research of pictography. The expanding web archive showcases a wide range of design and artistic works focused on pictograms, language systems, and beyond. The eponymous exhibition sparked the launch of the web project in 2021 when due to COVID-19 regulations, visits to the show were not possible. A selection of works and texts were shown online, accompanied by a digital lecture evening featuring participating artists and curators. Creating a digital archive became the apparent next step, allowing for the inclusion of more works, topics, designers, and artists. 


    This project is supported by the NEU START KULTUR program organized by the Deutscher Künstlerbund e.V.

    Edgar Walthert

  • Comparing apples and oranges is her daily bread. Juli draws attention, creates confusion, and designs approaches. She sees and establishes connections between phenomenons, people, and things. She wonders and interprets, disassembles and combines, transforms and invents, learns and teaches. Language and everyday culture are rich sources for her various collections as well as for her work. She loves to make people smile because she finds it makes them beautiful.


    Icon spell – boosting a global language by collaborative intelligence

    Communicate with each other without speaking the same language? A dream! Could it come true? Purely visually, perhaps? Independent from spoken languages? Why not use our contemporary hieroglyphics: pictograms, logos, emojis, icons and symbols? By lining them up, such ‘short ­messages’ could be used to communicate complete stand-alone messages. With this idea I came up with as a student and ‘translated’ the biblical creation story. Today I know that other people besides me in different countries had this idea, independent of each other. Among them Xu Bing with his Book from the Ground and Cesco Reale and his multinational KOMUNIKON team with ‘IKON’.


    In early human history, every communication system in the world was symbol-based. Of these, the Egyptian hieroglyphs may be best known. Who would have thought that, surprisingly, uncounted generations later, since the beginning of the 20th century, new approaches would emerge? And that this would happen increasingly. Obviously, this idea wants to learn to walk, and to see the world! 

    However, (pictographic) universal languages developed by individuals so far did not have the desired success. Presumably, the incentive to learn and use them was too small. And yet…


    An internationally understandable, visual language is perhaps more urgently needed today than ever before. Since everything around us is in motion, we are quite speechless while trenches between people, cultures, and nations are growing. And the time is overripe, as the circumstances are more favourable than ever before. Computers and the Internet not only brought a flood of icons. They also allow us to communicate in an increasingly globalised world in an un­precedentedly simple manner. So, maybe there is way. 


    Why not try to boost the evolution of a pictographic language with collaborative intelligence? After all, all living languages are the work of many. The more a language is used and enriched, the more understandable it becomes. Consequently, my idea is to invite people from the most diverse sociotopes, generations, professions, languages and cultures to come together as thinkers, designers and testers. Anyone who can hold a pencil could join in. Participants would be considered as an authority on their own experience and communication style. Out of this abundance, the most appropriate and practicable ‘visual vocabulary’ and ‘pictogrammar’ may gradually crystallise. I imagine this as an organic process with an open outcome. 


    With my ‘Icon spell’ project I aim to bring together the popular language of our time with our visual intangible heritage. As each culture has its own icons, comparing and discussing them has what it takes to raise awareness. It might help to bridge divides. The goal of this experiment would be achieved as soon as it develops a momentum of its own, when it becomes a self-learning system. 


    But can this really work? 


    Experiments would not be experiments if their outcome were predictable. So, why not try it and see what happens? As communication via icons has a long ­history it may have a lot to look forward to in the future. 

  • Loïc Marleix is a French independent designer specializing in systems architecture, interfaces, semiotics, and the study of glyphs. A fervent explorer of Unicode, kaomoji, and sub-internet culture, he has designed a free tool to preserve and explore the language constructed by Japanese designer Ota Yukio under the name ‘Lovers Communication System.’


    The rediscovery of the Lovers Communication Language

    Born in 1939, Ota Yukio is a Japanese designer whose work has been instrumental in making glyphs a language of everyday use. His design of the ‘Running Man’ emergency exit and the evacuation area marks have earned international acclaim. 

    Professor at Tama University, President of the Japan Society for Science of Signs, and Chief Director of the Sign Center of Japan, he has received several design awards and authored over a dozen books and articles on pictogram design and symbolic languages.


    His book ‘ピクトグラムデザイン’ (Pictogram Design), published in 1987, ‘is part of the rise in the usage of the Japanese word emoji [...] Ota's book was one obvious, significant source of inspiration for the designers of NTT DoCoMo's i-mode phone system [...] who first released their set of 176 pictographic characters in 1999.’ (Jonathan E. Abel, 2019, Not everyone S).


    While traveling around Italy alone on foot in 1964, Ota imagined a language that could be understood worldwide. Inspired by Otto Neurath's Isotype and his peers during a flourishing era of pictogram internationalization of the '60s, Ota constructed a clever pictorial language system known as the Lovers Communication System (LoCoS). From his first international presentation at the ICOGRADA conference in 1971, the support expressed by the community has motivated him to dedicate his life to his creation.


    ‘LoCoS was named in the hopes that the people of the world can communicate like lovers do using these symbols’ (Ota, 2018, LoCoS Visual Sign Language for Global Communication). 


    Ota's goal was to provide an easy-to-learn-and-remember system by proposing a language made of simple shapes and pictograms. LoCos aimed to provide a solution where meaning, shape, and sound would work together, a language where people could perceive the meaning of a sentence at a glance, ‘a collaboration between Eastern people, who use shape and meaning, and Western people, who use meaning and sound.’ (Ota, 2018, LoCoS Visual Sign Language for Global Communication). 


    After the publication of the first book, ‘新しい絵ことばLoCoS’ (New word-pictures LoCoS), showcasing Ota's creation in 1973 by Kodansha in Japan, he worked in early 2000 with Cecilia Macaulay and the interface designer Aaron Marcus to translate his book and build a website to discover LoCos. With Marcus, they explored integrating LoCoS as a shortcut language for mobile phones (Marcus, 2007, m-LoCoS UI), while Emoji integration in Unicode was started yet.


    ‘LoCoS is not complete and cannot be undertaken by a person alone[...]I strongly feel that we need a LoCoS research Group on an international scale’ (Ota, 2018, LoCoS Visual Sign Language for Global Communication). 


    Ota Yukio is now 84 years old and still active in preserving the memory of his creation. Praised by the design community, a wider LoCoS adoption still needs to happen to further its completion. An updated version of his book has been available since 2018, but no other resources are available for rediscovery.


    Loïc Marleix has built a free web platform to offer a new audience an opportunity to discover, learn, and play with LoCoS. In this presentation, he will present the language Ota imagined, his digitalization work, and the result of new experiments and explorations.

  • Co-author - Laura Meloni (

    We present IKON, an iconic language designed to be international and cross cultural, as much as possible. We delve into IKON's visual system, at the boundary between linguistics, graphic design and IT, integrating cultural, semantic, and semiotic elements.We discuss contrastiveness and association in IKON’s icons, as well as processual and stative/transformative icons, the role of speech and thought bubbles, and arrows. Finally, we will present LUDIKON, a quiz where participants have to guess sentences in IKON, and we will examine its role for ludic communication under a semio-pragmatic approach. 


    IKON, language of icons: linguistic, graphic guidelines and ludic communication

    Icons are ubiquitous today – they make web and mobile apps user-friendly, guide people in airports, help in healthcare communication, and assist people with language impairments []. Where words fall short, a clear visual language (any visual interaction - writing, icons, sign language, etc.) can effectively convey messages. Organizing icons within a visual system further enables the development of a planned language for international communication.

    In this communication, we present IKON, an iconic language designed to be international and cross cultural, as much as possible. Situated at the intersection of linguistics, graphic design, and IT, IKON’s visual system integrates cultural, semantic, and semiotic elements. Drawing inspiration from visual communication and semiotics studies (see Kress & Leeuwen, 2020), we highlight the potential of iconic representation within IKON to convey meaning through formal elements and design structures.

    IKON's icons organize scenes using contrastiveness and association, employing signifiers transcending linguistic barriers, such as exclamation points for imperative mode, thought and speech bubbles for mental processes, arrows to capture actions semantics. Recent additions include processual and stative/transformative icons, representing changes in the subject's state with diagrammatic representations, addressing ambiguity in current UI trends (i.e., on command buttons, the icons represent the current state or the state to achieve?).

    In our previous work we presented IKON methodology (Reale et al., 2021, Meloni et al., 2022b) and brought an example of the IKON language application in the dentist-patient discourse (Meloni et al., 2022a). Here, we examine how situations of communication with IKON can be used as an introduction to play. Communication is never perfect nor uninterrupted, and a message is rarely received exactly as it was transmitted, even if we speak the same language. Assuming that meaning emanates from the subject rather than the object, we, therefore, use a semio-pragmatic approach that studies the functioning (or misfunctioning) of communication. To help reduce language barriers, the aim is to break away from the serious and idealized aspect of uninterrupted smooth communication by suggesting a playful environment with the game Ludikon.

    This contribution aims to shed light on the contact and differences between the visual and verbal modes and the role of a systematic iconic language within the ongoing discourse on visual communication practices to overcome language barriers.

  • Dr Haytham Nawar is an Associate Professor of design and the former Chair of the Department of the Arts at the American University in Cairo. Nawar is also the founding director of Cairotronica, Cairo International Electronic and New Media Arts Festival, Egypt.


    Generative Pictographic Language

    Writing systems serve as instruments of language and culture, representing the diverse civilizations throughout history. While some scripts fade away over time, new ones emerge through cultural interactions and the influence of existing scripts. By blending different scripts, we envision a future where old scripts are synthesized. This vision is realized through a machine that utilizes its neutral connections to create a new script stroke by stroke. By recognizing the similarities between input scripts, the machine generates a pictographic language that reflects the unconscious resemblances across these writing systems. Through multiple iterations, the final result becomes a testament to the hidden links among various civilizations.

    The objective of the AI-generated script is to introduce a pictographic language that offers insights into the visual expression of ancient cultures. It proposes a modern pictographic script, with its traits directly drawn from the data processed by the machine. By establishing consistent patterns in shapes and strokes, the machine leverages its neural connections to create a new pictographic script on a digital screen, stroke by stroke. Through the recognition and grouping of similar patterns, the machine identifies the shared characteristics of these scripts, such as stroke style, figure complexity, and proportions. This enables the machine to generate a unique pictographic language that reflects the homogeneity of each writing system when combined. Writing systems have played a crucial role in shaping civilizations, and the final result serves as an exploration of the often overlooked connections between diverse cultures across many civilizations. The project involves training various models to generate a script based on the similarities found in the input data. Running the machine on GPUs for several days at a time and iterating the process allows for the refinement of a visually appealing result.

    This project delves into the captivating history of human communication, examining ancient scripts and writing systems. From ancient carvings to complex ideograms, writing has been vital for language documentation and cultural preservation. Leveraging machine learning, the project creates a generative pictographic language by drawing inspiration from a diverse database of vector-based writing systems. By exploring the visual language of ancient civilizations, the project aims to uncover universal iconography and highlight the intrinsic link between writing and culture. The project's outcomes include 3D objects, surface engravings reminiscent of ancient tablets, an animated film, and a printed book. These mediums showcase the collaboration between the artist and the machine, opening up new possibilities for creative partnerships between humans and machines.

Nigel Holmes

Prof Scott E Fahlman

We are delighted to have been selected to be part of The British Academy’s 2024 conference programme and kindly acknowledge the support of both The British Academy and The Wellcome Trust for helping to make Symbol ’24 happen. The Symbol Group is endorsed by IIID. Funding from the Information Design Association kindly enabled us to create The Symbol Group network to benefit designers, design researchers and students and run our inaugural symposium Symbol ’22.

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