Category Archives: Infographics

Why Traffic Signs Work

A Lesson in Uniformity for Communicators

A driver going 55 miles per hour needs about 280 feet of stopping distance — almost the length of a soccer field. So, if you’re trying to communicate to highway drivers, you have just a few seconds to get across important messages like this one:

The driver of any vehicle shall not turn such vehicle so as to proceed in the opposite direction unless such movement can be made in safety and without interfering with other traffic.

No vehicle shall be turned so as to proceed in the opposite direction upon any curve, or upon the approach to or near the crest of a grade, where such vehicle cannot be seen by the driver of any other vehicle approaching from either direction within five hundred feet.

Try posting that on a road sign.

Luckily, the people who design traffic signs came up with a solution that allows them to translate the full meaning of those two paragraphs into this:

This sign works — and works quickly — because it sticks to a few important rules.

On traffic signs, red always means “no” or “stop.” A vertical rectangle is always used to tell a driver about a regulation. These and other rules are spelled out in a detailed document called the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD). The MUTCD states: “Uniformity of traffic control devices is critical in highway safety.” It adds that uniformity also creates efficiencies, helping public agencies simplify maintenance and control costs.

Of course, traffic signs rely on more than shapes and colors; they use words and symbols, too. So the MUTCD includes specific guidelines for lettering, size, borders, arrows, and more.

It may seem odd for a communicator to be extolling the virtues of uniformity. Numerous laboratory experiments have found that creative messages (those that feature unusual and nonobvious solutions) get more attention, lead to positive attitudes, and are more effective at influencing behavior.

But, successful communication also relies on a certain amount of predictability. Imagine if your grocery store or your bank’s website shuffled its sections around each week. We’d spend more time searching than getting — and that’s a sure way to get your audience to stop paying attention.

Lastly, the MUTCD states that an effective “traffic control device” meets five basic requirements. It must:

• Fulfill a need
• Command attention
• Convey a clear, simple meaning
• Command respect from road users
• Give adequate time for proper response

These “rules of the road” would serve any communicator well.

By the way, the MUTCD permits use of 13 colors on road signs. Two of those are coral and light blue, which are reserved for purposes that haven’t been determined yet. (Keep an eye open for those pink traffic signs.)

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Stop Motion

Action, art and language in Olympic pictograms.

I was delighted to see live performers interpret 50 Olympic pictograms during the 2021 Tokyo Olympics Opening Ceremonies. The super-imaginative reverse engineering of these uniquely Olympic symbols—from motion to symbol and back to motion—was both thrilling to watch and illustrative of the power of these graphic designs.

In case you missed the original broadcast.

Olympic pictograms

It’s fitting that Tokyo should prominently celebrate Olympic pictograms because this concept was first introduced at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Design lead Katsumi Masaru used ekotoba (pictograms) to deal with a huge language barrier:

“Symbols such as international traffic signs need to be easily understood, accepted by authorities and civil citizens, and be practical. This was achieved in 1964 at the Tokyo Olympic Games. Few tourists understood Japanese. Other languages were not commonly used. The Olympic committee took this problem seriously, and new designers led by Katsumi Masaru designed game symbols and other signs. I hope that these symbols will be used in the next games so that they will be polished to be the perfect universal visual”

1964 quote from design critic Stanley Mason. Traganou, Jilly. “OLYMPIC DESIGN AND NATIONAL HISTORY: THE CASES OF TOKYO 1964 AND BEIJING 2008.” P. 68
Pictograms from 1964 Tokyo Games

The success of the Tokyo team’s design philosophy carried over into and evolved in the 1968 Mexico City Games. For Mexico City, graphic designer Lance Wyman incorporated elements of indigenous folk art and psychedelia into his pictograms. The legacy of his Mexico City design can be traced throughout the 1970s. Check out more of this revolutionary design work.

Pictograms from 1968 Mexico City Games.

For the Munich Games in 1972, Otl Aicher took pictograms to a new level by placing geometrically complimentary lines within a grid system that provided structure. The Munich design has become the standard system we see at Olympic Games today.

Pictograms from 1972 Olympics

Essentially human

Olympic pictograms facilitate a global audience, gathered together in a foreign locale to enjoy shared experience. A tall order. To do that, they sidestep language altogether. Instead, referencing the root, pictograms look to the reality words represent. They present that reality using the near universally recognized shape of the human body, placed in different positions and contexts to indicate an event.

When you think about the problem, the solution seems so simple, so obvious—the revival of a fundamentally human language.

Our most ancient ancestors used pictograms to record their most important memories and hopes.

Chauvet Cave, over 30,000 years old.

Almost any kindergartener will show you that using small drawings to capture people, places and things is basic to human communication.

Pictograms are as essential as human speech.
photo by Jerry Wang

Archeologists believe modern alphabets evolved from the sounds and shapes associated with hieroglyphs.

Our letter A started with from the shape of an ox’ head which corresponded to the word for ox, Aleph.

Today, pictograms remain ubiquitous in all of our modern landscapes—as much a part of our language as the letters on this screen.

Graffiti, emoji and signage.

Ways we read pictograms

The concept of visual literacy is complex and can be controversial. Though not a subject this article, there is some “grammar” involved in reading pictographs.

Pictograms are designed to transcend written language. They are images that take the place of words. They are for communication, not art. They aren’t open to individual interpretation. If you “interpret” a sign designated for diving is the sign for long jumping, you will end up at the wrong venue.

“Information consists of differences that make a difference.”

Edward R. Tufte—Envisioning Information p.65

Sports are represented symbolically, not precisely, with pictograms. It isn’t important to show precise details of a sport or action. Rather, showing a moment or element that both represents the sport and is distinguishable from related activities is key.

Can you tell the difference in these three separate sports; Judo, Karate and Taekwondo?

Stop action is the most familiar form for an Olympic pictogram. As if illuminated by a strobe light, the pictogram reimagines a singular moment of athletic motion.

Designers take the most iconic and recognizable moment of an athletic movement to create a pictogram.

Context situates the particular pictogram within a specific game and country. Olympic pictograms are not a single form. For each game, the designers imbue the pictograms with elements from their culture, from the history of the games, the tradition of pictograms and the event they are representing. Knowing something about these elements is vital to being able to read pictograms.

If you don’t know about pitching, you might be confused by which sign is for baseball and which is for softball.

Abstraction is also a key element of pictography. For each Olympic Games, the host city redesigns pictograms to add design elements unique to the that city. These are often cultural clues drawn from history or geography.

To fully appreciate the abstract forms of the 2008 Beijing pictograms, you need to know something about Chinese writing.

Learn more

There are so many layers to graphic design. I hope you found something new and intriguing in this short article.

I love this subject because I believe communication is key to being human. Visual communication is complicated because it’s abstract and more subjective to the receiver than are written words. We each see through a lens colored by personal experiences, psychology, culture and more. Unravelling this is kind of mysterious and fascinating.

The I.O.C. has a wonderful history of Olympic pictograms.

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Make Your Message Obvious

(and How to Play a Cmaj7)

Guitar Tablature Tells People What to Do, Not Just What to Know

About eight years ago, when I finally decided to give my teenage dreams of learning to play guitar a chance, I dreaded the thought of learning to read music. To me, musical notation looks like a lovely foreign language; but I wanted to spend my limited time actually playing music, not deciphering a code. Luckily, I quickly discovered guitar tablature.

Intuitive Instruction

While musical notation gives you important information (notes, tempo, key, etc.), guitar tablature describes action. It tells you exactly where to put your fingers. In tab, if you see the number 2 on the third line from the bottom, you put your finger on the second fret of the third string. If you see an X, you don’t play that string. If you see an O, you play that string without fretting it. That’s pretty much it. All you really have to know is that the bottom line of the tab corresponds to the top string on your guitar. Of course, you’ll need to practice, but at least you’ll know what to practice. 

Musical notation, on the other hand, requires learning abstract symbols. A dot on the third line from the bottom doesn’t mean you put your finger on the third string. Before you can tell your hands what to do, that dot has to travel into your mind where it meets with a stored piece of knowledge. If you don’t have that stored knowledge, the notation is worthless. 

A good guitar tab is a good piece of communication:

  • It’s obvious (It clearly tells you what to do, not just what to know.)
  • It’s visual (You know what to do just by looking at it.)
  • It’s intuitive (It makes sense. It matches the player’s expectations.)

Of course, people who learn to read music can eventually do so just as quickly as someone can read tab. And, once you learn musical notation, you can appreciate just how packed with useful information it is. But ask yourself what’s more appropriate for your audience. If you want them to play a Cmaj7 on a guitar, do you need to show them this:

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Fewer Words,
More Visuals

Infographics to the Rescue

A number of years ago, a new client of mine was interested in introducing a new HR program at her company using an infographic.

“When you say infographics, what do you mean?” I asked.

My client had heard of infographics. She believed infographics were in vogue. She wanted to create one. But she and her colleagues weren’t quite sure what one was. They only knew it was more pictures than words.

Fair enough. At the time, to be honest, I didn’t have a working definition for “infographic” myself.

My next question: Why an infographic? On this point, they were completely certain. “Because we don’t think people are reading our communications,” they said.

Sound familiar?

Data Visualization

Edward Tufte is known as a pioneer in the field of data visualization. His book, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, is considered a seminal source on statistical graphics, charts and tables.

According to Tufte, a statistician at heart, “data graphics visually display measured quantities by means of the combined use of points, lines, a coordinate system, numbers, symbols, words, shading, and color.” I would consider this a strict – almost scientific – definition of an infographic. It hinges on the notion that one is attempting to communicate quantifiable data. Tufte puts it another way: infographics require “the use of abstract, non-representational pictures to show numbers.”

Here’s an example:

Screen Shot 2016-03-15 at 10.09.03 AM

(Created by Stanford Kay, Newsweek’s International Edition)

But let’s be honest. We’re not always trying to communicate quantifiable data. Most of the time we just want to get our message across in the least boring way possible. Can infographics help do that?

In his book, The Power of Infographics, Mark Smiciklas provides a broader characterization of an infographic. He says “infographics are a type of picture that blends data with design, helping individuals and organizations concisely communicate messages to their audience.”


In fact, we see these kinds of infographics everywhere, from subway maps to Ikea furniture assembly instructions to road signs.

Here’s an example of an infographic that’s not so data-driven:

Screen Shot 2016-03-15 at 10.09.59 AM

(Created by Anna Vital)

But let’s go back to why my client wanted to employ an infographic in the first place. The company was prompted by a frustration I hear from clients all the time: “We deliver communications to our employees in lots of different ways – they just don’t read it.”

The fact is employers are constantly searching for ways to compel their employees to sit up and say, “Yes, I’ll pay attention to that!” The most common approach is more or different technology – videos, websites, apps, texting, social media. But what about fundamentally changing the way we communicate in certain situations? Fewer words, more visuals. Sometimes the answer is in simplifying the complex.

USA Today

If you’re still not sure, let’s ask it another way: What’s the one thing on the front page of USA Today you are sure to read?

Screen Shot 2016-03-15 at 10.10.27 AM

(Created by Anne R. Carey and Gwen Saunders, USA Today)

Started in 1982, USA Today strived to present news information in a simpler, more visual way. While often criticized for oversimplifying the delivery of news, the newspaper’s success can’t be disputed.
USA Today has never tried to be the Wall Street Journal. And, in your employee communications, you probably aren’t either. For my entire consulting career, I’ve heard the following from at least one client every year: “We want our communications to have a more USA Today-feel.” Translation: fewer words, more visuals.

Your employees probably want this, too. Above all, they want simple, clear, easy. The easier the better, they will tell you. We can all take a lesson from USA Today.

Smiciklas argues that infographics work in business for three reasons:

  • They are easy to digest. In an age when we skim more than we read, infographics grab our attention more effectively than sentences and paragraphs.
  • They are shareable. If we like something, we will share it with others. (Just look at how many people over-share on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook these days.) But to share an article or blog post means one must first read it. The threshold for sharing an infographic is much lower.
  • The Cool Factor. Competition for the attention of your employees is greater than ever. As Smiciklas writes, the person you’re trying to connect to with your communication probably spends only a few seconds on your content before deciding whether to move on. Infographics are unique; they help you stand out among the competition. They are…cool.

So, if this is true, why do we still have 30-page benefit guides and complex medical plan comparison grids? Why don’t we use infographics more?

Well, most of us would agree that in some circumstances detailed information can only be delivered in long booklets and complicated charts. However, in other instances, the right answer evokes the famous quote, “If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.”

This certainly applies to infographics. Infographics rely on sharp creativity and economy of ideas. For example, let’s compare the table and infographic below.

The Cost of Housecleaning

Following are estimated costs of selected household cleaning services provided by professional household cleaning services in the United States. Costs might be higher for fragile or valuable furnishings, or for large houses, and may vary by region.

Draperies and CurtainsN/A$2/horizontal foot
Gutter CleaningAverage size houseApp. $50 or 40 cents/gutter foot
Window WashingStandard sizes inside and out$5-8/window
Carpet Shampoo9×12 feet


12×15 feet




Upholstery CleaningFull-size sofa with cushions$90-130
Fireplace and ChimneysN/A$60-125
General HousecleaningIncludes kitchen and bathroom cleanup, laundry, and household tidying$5-15/hour
Furnace and Duct CleaningFor an average-size house$50/furnace


$50 for all ducts

Self-Navigating, Robotic Vacuum CleanerCleans bare floors and carpets, recognizes walls and other obstacles$25,000
(CYBERVAC, by CyberWorks, Orillia, Ontario)

Converting this complex information takes real time, thought and talent.

Screen Shot 2016-03-15 at 10.11.57 AM

(Created by Megan Jaegerman, The New York Times)

Admittedly, the larger chart provides the reader more detail but is less visually engaging. Clearly, both presentations have a role in your communication.

The reality is that infographics are hard to do, and even harder to do well. One might contend that they are the ultimate marriage of great design and clear content. But that shouldn’t stop us from trying. Begin simply. Fewer words, more visuals. Think USA Today. And then challenge your communication professionals – whether internal resources or external consultants – to do what my client did years ago with me. Demand an infographic. You already know why – because you want your employees to sit up and take notice.

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