(Good) Pictograms Help Faster Info Decoding

The use of pictograms and visual aids makes deciphering information (whether qualitative or quantitative) much easier. Prof. Edward Tufte, a pioneer in the field of data visualization, wrote his classic books on the subject about 15 years ago.

The rules haven’t changed: we decipher images faster than text or numbers (just think how much longer it takes to decipher the name of an airport on a road sign than the airplane symbol beside it). The elements of visual expression – size, shape and color – all work together to assist in faster decoding.

The problem starts when the visual aid isn’t clear enough, when it doesn’t serve its purpose or when it actually becomes a burden.

Chevrolet’s AC controller is a good example of what not to do. One scale depicts the strength of the AC while a separate scale lights up to indicate where you are on the first scale. Why not combine that information to a single scale? The problem repeats itself on the temperature controller.


To understand how important pictograms are for data deciphering, just compare the excellent Parisian metro map to its Moscow counterpart. While the Parisian one clearly displays where the line begins and ends, which stations are problematic and where you can change to a different service, the Moscow map has no pictograms and isn’t nearly as clear.



Using conventional colors isn’t a bad thing. Green will always be positive and red will always be a warning. The British National Health Service website has a BMI app which exemplifies how using colors correctly can help you immediately decipher your data.


Pictograms are especially important when it comes to data- and number-heavy applications. The NASDAQ website is a good example as the companies’ logos and the red and green arrows make deciphering the fluctuation chart much easier – this compared to the Tel Aviv Exchange’s intimidating, dreary chart. In short, as long as you do it carefully it’s good to spice things up with pictograms.


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