Popcorn in the Washbasin or Making Pictograms Legible

During the corona pandemic, pictograms are often used to communicate hygiene measures and behavioural rules because of their simplicity and broad comprehensibility. This also calls for many new pictograms. Design agencies are responding to this need and create specific corona pictogram sets. However, making pictograms readable is a challenging task, depending on the term to be represented.

The following example shows that pictograms are not always clearly understandable. In a study on communication between nurses and foreign-language pediatric patients [1], one participant mentioned that pictograms are used in her unit in a children’s hospital to overcome language barriers. In this context, she told the following anecdote: bedridden patients are washed in the hospital with the help of washbasins. This care procedure can be communicated to the patients independent of language by means of a pictogram representing a washbasin full of foam (fig. 1). However, the pictogram was also apparently misunderstood by children: the accumulated foam bubbles were interpreted as popcorn in a bowl. 

Fig. 1: Washbasin or popcorn bowl? Pictograms are not always clearly readable.

This example shows that pictograms – contrary to the expectation of universal comprehensibility –  are not always clearly understandable. They are always interpreted from the standpoint of the observer. In this case, the popcorn bowl is probably closer to the children’s world than the washbasin.

The Principle of Simplicity

The most important factor when designing a pictogram is the unambiguity and understandability of the content for the largest possible user group. The design of pictograms follows the principle of simplicity by focusing on functionality and readability and by omitting unnecessary details. Every detail potentially slows down the speed of reception and can mislead the interpretation in an unintended direction [2]. The presentation is reduced to the essential typical features of an object or action. The more generic the depicted object is, the greater the chance that the content will be understood by the largest possible target group.

Corona Pictograms

As the current pandemic makes it necessary to communicate new content with great urgency, design agencies are also reacting to Covid-19 by developing pictograms to support communication. Currently, many pictogram sets (some of which can be used freely) are appearing on the internet, showing the guidelines for behaviour in dealing with the pandemic.

Fig. 2: Examples of Peter Schmidt Group’ s corona icons

Examples include the Peter Schmidt Group’s freely usable icon set (fig. 2), or the Font Awesome website, whose font-based icon collection lists 188 results under the keyword “covid-19”  – from toilet paper to face masks (fig. 3).

Fig. 3: Examples from the Covid-19 icon collection by Font Awesome

Moreover, Stiehl/Over/Gehrmann, the agency responsible for the further development of the legendary Otl-Aicher pictograms and their licensing, has developed 3 new Covid 19 pictograms under the title “Zeichen der neuen Zeit” (fig. 4).

Fig. 4: Freely usable hygiene pictograms from Stiehl/Over/Gehrmann

Also, many ministries of health and public health organisations are making their communication tools available in the fight against the coronavirus. This includes the Federal Office of Public Health FOPH (fig. 5) (see also the contribution to the federal information campaign on this blog).

Fig. 5: Poster with pictograms of the FOPH’s information campaign.

The Claim to Neutrality Versus the Establishing of Identity

The variety of these new corona pictograms clearly shows that, in addition to the ideal of a neutral, universal symbol, designers or companies also have a desire for variations with an identity-generating effect. This aestheticizing diversity provides for variety, but also bears the danger of diluting standardized pictorial messages.

In addition to criteria of unambiguity and simplicity, when designing pictograms it is essential to ensure a high contrast between foreground and background in order to support legibility. An additional foreground colour should only be considered if there is a good reason for this apart from aesthetic considerations (for example, warning or prohibition signs use red as an additional colour to attract attention and to indicate a possible danger).

But which of these new corona pictograms are actually suitable for effective communication? A comparison of the icons for wearing face masks reveals different approaches and qualities. 

Figs. 6– 9: Pictograms for “wearing a face mask” by Stiehl/Over/Gehrmann, Font Awesome, Peter Schmidt Group and the Federal Office of Public Health (from left to right)

While fig. 6 and 7 set to a profile view, fig. 8 and 9 show the face respectively the mask in a frontal view. The first two pictograms have a high contrast and thus also have a distant effect. Both pictograms are very reduced in content. While in the first one the distinct neck makes the head recognizable, in the other it is the stylized eye. However, in its alienation and in the absence of a clear head shape, the circle seems more like a hole than an eye. The mask is also rather difficult to recognize due to its strong reduction and the thick stroke width. In the drawing by Stiehl/Over/Gehrmann (fig. 6), the mask stands out visually due to the choice of white colour on a black background. The typical ear loops also make the mask recognizable as such. In the first character in the frontal view (fig. 8), however, these ear loops look more like the handle of a cup. The omission of a face is rather confusing and does not support the core statement that a mask should be worn. It can only be speculated about the purpose of the two open triangles at the top and bottom of the mask. Probably, they are meant to show the importance of the mask covering nose and chin. Furthermore, the use of the second colour makes no sense in this case in terms of content. The FOPH pictogram (fig. 9) is intended to convey two messages: the wearing of the mask when the minimum distance cannot be respected. The sign is thus overloaded with content and loses its clarity, which is further enhanced by the relatively detailed masks on the very reduced silhouettes, which are difficult to recognize.

Figs. 9, 10, 11: Pictograms for Avoid shaking hands by Font Awesome, Peter Schmidt Group and from the FOPH campaign (from left to right).

The sign for “avoid shaking hands” shows that maximum reduction can also reduce readability. While in figures 10 and 11 the shaking hands are clearly recognizable as such, this is not the case in figure 9. Without an explanatory context, neither hands nor the “forbidden bar” are recognizable. This is also due to the merging of the two elements hands and bar. By its graphic form, the sign rather represents a logo or a visual mark. This is also due to the fusion of the two elements hands and bar. The other two signs show a difference in the use of the second colour. The sign of the FOPH campaign (fig. 11) uses the signal colour red, an overlayed cross that clearly strikes out the hands. Why in the Peter Schmidt Group sign (fig. 10) the two hands are in different colours and not the two levels of meaning can only be explained by the design rules for the entire sign system. 

Sign systems, a group of stylistically related signs, create a visual connection between the individual signs and thus a sense of belonging to a larger whole – be it a company, a large-scale event (e.g. the Olympics) or an information campaign.  Depending on the design, pictograms can differentiate from their competitors, but also counteract the spread of established pictograms. 

Fig. 12: Character system of the corona icons of the Peter Schmidt Group
Fig. 13: Corona icon family of the FOPH campaign

The corona icons of the Peter Schmidt Group (fig. 12) are designed very stringently as a system with a characteristic two-colour scheme, uniform line width and consistent graphic principles (e.g. type of strikethrough). The icons from the FOPH campaign (fig. 13), on the other hand, are less homogeneously realized. The degree of abstraction of the figures is incongruent. While these are very reduced for the “keep distance” sign, the representation of “sneeze into the crook of your arm” is much more realistic. Here, the recognizability was weighted higher than the uniformity of the whole system. The hands crossed out in red also fall out of the line as a whole.

Within the pictogram systems introduced in the context of Covid-19, three groups can be distinguished: On the one hand, these are existing and already well established sign systems, such as the Otl-Aicher pictograms by Stiehl/Over/Gehrmann, which have been expanded to meet new needs (fig. 4). On the other hand, pictogram families were newly created in connection with the Covid-19 pandemic and continuously supplemented due to the course of the pandemic. These include the FOPH’s family of pictograms (fig. 5), on the basis of which additional pictograms have been designed, for example, specifically for public transport (fig. 14). And finally, there are corona sign systems which have been completely new developed and therefore have a uniform visual appearance, as the example of the Peter Schmidt Group shows (fig. 12).

Fig. 14: The system of FOPH pictograms was supplemented by the Federal Office of Transport FOT, PostBus and SBB with signs for public transport.

Concluding, it can be said that there is not one universal solution for pictograms, as they always have to be considered in connection with the intention of the broadcaster, the visual literacy and experience of the target group and the purpose of use. However, if designers take into account these contexts as well as the design and semiotic principles, pictograms can provide information in an effective and efficient way – and in a fraction of the time it would take to understand an equivalent text. Even if popcorn ends up in the washbasin every now and then…

[1] Kaufmann, Beatrice, Tannys Helfer, Dana Pedemonte, Marika Simon, and Sarah Colvin. 2020. “Communication challenges between nurses and migrant paediatric patients.” Journal of Research in Nursing 25 (3):256-74. doi: 10.1177/1744987120909414.

[2] Christian, Alexander. 2017. Piktogramme. Tendenzen in der Gestaltung und im Einsatz grafischer Symbole. Herbert von Halem Verlag, Köln.


Beatrice Kaufmann

Beatrice Kaufmann works as a research associate at the Bern University of the Arts (HKB). Her field of interest is health care communication design and social design. She has extensive practical experience as a graphic designer and illustrator.

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