Pictogram Project

What is a pictogram?

What is a pictogram?

Nowadays, pictograms are an integral part of our lives life. From the signs that guide you on the way to work to those found at a public park, they constitute a universal language that accompanies our daily activities1.

History of pictograms


Although the use of pictograms has gained a rise in popularity in the last several decades, especially in the medical field, their origin goes back much further.

Lascaux cavesa

Cavemen were the first to use pictograms. Rock paintings, 40,000 years-old were discovered on several continents.2

Complex drawings illustrating the same subject were observed on walls of caves located several kilometers from one another. Interestingly, even though these painting were created thousands of years apart and in different regions, the artists used similar elements to represent the same objects.3

Pech Merle cave (France)
29,000 years old b

Ekain cave (Spain)
13,000 to 14,000 years old c

The artists likely used these horses, which can be thought of as pictograms to tell different stories. This is similar to modern pictogram use, where the same symbols will be used in different context.3

The art of writing is born between 3500 BC and 3000 BC in Sumer, in south of Mesopotamia.4

4 Named Sumerian cuneiform, it comprises over 1500 pictograms. Each of them can be defined as a simplified illustration of an animal or object which is attached to a word.5


Hieroglyphic script emerged in Egypt in 5000 BC. Originally drawn in the clay, pictograms were later scratched in the rock, then, drawn on parchments.5


Pictogram comes from the latin word pictus that means “painted” combined with the suffix –graph : “something written”. 6 According to the Cambridge dictionary, it is a ‘picture or symbol that represents a word or phrase’.7

A pictogram consists of two different parts:

  • A symbol or graphic representation
  • A meaning : the objects or actions the image represents or the purpose of the illustration (warning, give a direction …)8


    1. International Organization for Standardization[Internet]. The international language of ISO graphical symbols[ 2018 Nov]. Available from: https://www.iso.org/files/live/sites/isoorg/files/archive/pdf/en/graphical-symbols_booklet.pdf
    2. Universalis[Internet]. Figuration, paléolithique et néolithique. Accessed December 7,2018. Available from: https://www.universalis.fr/encyclopedie/figuration-paleolithique-et-neolithique/2-les-premieres-images/
    3. Sophie A. de Beaune. L’art préhistorique, support de mémoire. Les Grands dossiers des sciences humaines. 2006;6(11):3
    4. Ancient History Encyclopedia[Internet]. Writing. [published April 28,2011]. Accessed Dec 7, 2018. Available from: https://www.ancient.eu/writing/
    5. Claude-Louis Gallien. ChapitreXI. Homo communicans. Homo.2002:399-433
    6. Online Etymologiy Dictionary[Internet]. Pictogram. Accessed Dec 7, 2018. Available from: https://www.etymonline.com/search?q=pictogram
    7. Cambridge Dictionary[Internet]. Pictogram. Accessed Dec 7,2018. Available from: https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/pictogram
    8. Montagne M. Pharmaceutcal pictograms: a model for development and testing for comprehension and utility. 2013;(9):609-620

target=”_blank” rel=”noopener”>https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Egypte_louvre_225_hieroglyphes.jpg

a. Wikimedia commons. Accessed December 12,2018 . Available from: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lascaux-IV_12.jpg
b. Pech Merle. Accessed December 12,2018 . Available from: http://en.pechmerle.com/
c. Ekain Berri. Accessed December 12,2018 . Available from: https://www.ekainberri.com/en/origin/
d. Wikimedia commons. Accessed December 12,2018 . Available from: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Egypte_louvre_225_hieroglyphes.jpg