|Pictogram’s with Stephen McCarthy|

Field, Level 5

We have been given the opportunity to have a one day workshop with Stephen McCarthy, Stephen McCarthy is currently the head of design for a programme of work called Government as a Platform. The idea of the programme is to build a set of shared products that make services a lot easier to create and become cheaper to run. 


pictograms an introduction:

We were given a lecture by Stephen McCarthy, explaining the use and need for pictograms around the world. pictograms are used for signalling and directing. normally put in place in order to instruct people and to get people to do things. an example of this would be the female and male icon on the outside of the toilet doors. this allows for us to categorise ourselves and allocate ourselves in to the rightful toilet for our gender. the use of icons allows for clear instruction across all platforms. this allows for the process to be free from the limits of language, and therefore the icons are classed as international symbols.

“Pictograms are the helping language; they help to instruct and direct people”

sometimes the icons can be put with typography, this tends to give more information than just the icon and allows for a greater understanding overall. however most of the time there is an art of implication. this is where the viewer of the icon will unintentionally fill in the gaps, and create their own meaning.

normally icons are developed over time in order to be consistent. subtle changes to the icons can be made in order to represent other qualities. an example of this is representing a teenager through icons. this can be done by adding a cap and backpack to the original stickman icon. this is significant to the age group, as this is the qualities that we most associate with that age group. it is found that stereotypes, however not always true can be beneficial when creating the icons. across broad ranges of countries we tend to create a stereotype that fits across all of them and is helpful and thought of within the creation process.

this isn’t always a solution however as a case revealed in India is that the universal women symbol used to signify women’s cubicles and other occurrences of the icon created uncertainty within the culture as the symbol didn’t culturally represent them within their own attire and appearance. this was later changed to eliminate any further confusion and subtle changes were made to the icon in order to create the original effect. the use of the sari and earrings helped culturally represent the female form, the biggest problem with these icons is that they can be ambiguous.

text and language: 

Images often need text alongside them in order to fully reciprocate the icons purpose and the intention for them. the typography is normally there to help to tell a narrative, the words are not crucial but they help with the imagery as well as other symbols to help create a sense of understanding and importance of the imagery. this then acts instead of the textual elements.

creating visual narratives

Within visual narratives, pictograms can be used as modes of reporting rather than instructing. this can be interpreted through a story, a day in time or over a period of time (example of this is a month). Within a section of Stephens own work he has created a visual narrative using pictograms in order to show the story of the London riots and through use of other headlines from popular newspapers. this worked well keeping the images simplistic yet effective and creating imagery that was easy to follow and show the full story.

  • pictograms as modes of reporting rather than instructions.
  • outcomes- story, day in a time, period of time over a month
  • the story- London riots:
  • the newspaper- picking tabloids can be an interesting idea for future work.
  • the headlines: picked headlines from large newspaper publishers and created pictograms from their headlines over three days.

Stephens Media: 



For the workshop we were split into pairs in order to create a booklet or spreads in order to show the narrative that we were supplied with. the idea was to show the story through pictograms where the story can be easily followed and understood. the story that myself and my partner was given was the budget cuts for nursery schools across the UK and the closures of more than one in ten. at first i found the article a bit dry compared to some of the others given out within the class. i found that reading through our article that there was a lot of data shown within the article which would be hard to visually represent. so we went ahead to go through the article and pull out the important information that could be used to show the full story.

after looking at the article a few times and pulling out the key parts of information, we found that the story didn’t really have a start or end, and that the it was more of a factual on going story that hasn’t ended. this was hard to deal with as trying to portray that through imagery was hard to show in little detail.

The details we decided to pull out were: 

  • more than one in ten nursery’s facing closure
  • closures happening across the UK
  • high quality early education for deprived and vulnerable children.
  • budget cuts to nursery schools all over the UK
  • labour MP Lucy Powell stands up to the cuts
  • the first few years are damaging the children’s development for their future.

Out of all of the the information we found that this was the best and helped tell a story without being too obvious or too abstract. We decided to go ahead to start drawing up the icons to represent the story. we started up trying to visualise a nursery. at first we looked at a cot format however this was too broad and could be misconstrued as an article about cot death or cot sales. instead we looked at educational symbols that represent the years and we felt that blocks with the alphabet on them seemed relevant to the age group as well as the level of learning that would be apparent within that setting.

Throughout the icons the rest of the imagery was developed using this image, across a map of England we portrayed it as lots of different nursery’s closing down using the icon with a red dash across it symbolising closure or no entry. again we used it in the form of an infographic. to show the data of more than one in ten nursery’s closing. this helped keep a running theme and proved to be quite effective when presenting in front of the class.

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Our final piece was a good set as together they told the story, however one of the images we had chosen to create had made the story take a turn. we wanted to show valuable education, and found the idea of it quite hard to represent. we decided to take the idea of the stars as in a 5 star rating education however it swayed the rest of the class to thinking about the european union instead. once we had explained this concept in more detail the rest of my colleagues understood, next time i feel that we could do it different where in we could position the stars better or find another way of representing the information more clearly.

Overall i found the project specifically quite interesting and made me think more into not just how i think about visuals but allowed me to take into consideration how other minds work and how we each perceive information differently. Working with Stephen McCarthy has been inspirational and working with people within industry has been valuable to learn more and develop my knowledge for what my course can entail.








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