Pictogram-me is an artistic research project developed at Bergen Academy of Art and Design (From January 1st 2017 Faculty of Fine Art, Musc And Design, Univeriyt of Bergen), Department of design, supported by the Norwegian Artistic Research Programme.


Ashley Booth, Professor in Visual communication:

Linda H. Lien, Associate professor in graphic design:

We can all feel underprivileged or have a difficult day. 


In Pictogram-me we aim to highlight the experiences of those who have a difficult daily life, a challenging existence. By the help of pictograms we wish to contribute to increased reflection on life’s complexity.


The Pictogram-me project aims to experiment and investigate whether pictograms, which are normally accepted as simple and not very flexible visual messages, can express more complex social messages.


Pictogram-me is inspired by Isotype, a symbol system developed by Otto Neurath to explain and illustrate social and economic issues to the general public in the 1920’s.1 Isotype is said to be the origin of modern pictograms. His vision was: Words divide, pictures unite. Isotype was developed as a language without words, and Isotypes visual representations of facts and statistics aimed to make information available to all, including illiterate and those with reading difficulties. Pictograms were used as a visual language to democratize communication. Since then, the use of pictograms has spread. We are surrounded by thousands of them each day as the friendly couple on the doors of public toilets, on your smart phones and computers, as weather maps and street signs. They are there to inform or warn, or sometimes just to be decorative (Abdullah & Hübner 2006, Dreyfuss 2002). The Pictogram-me project aims to experiment with pictograms, which are normally accepted as simple and not very flexible visual messages, and often used because recognizing an image is easier than reading text (Norman, 1990), could be refined to encourage more personal and complex story telling.


Inspiration projects

Example of projects using pictograms to express statements and attitudes are Pussy Galore and Olympukes. In the 1995 Pussy Galore font was created by the Women’s Design and Research Unit (Teal Triggs, Liz McQuiston and Sian Cook).2  The pictograms were designed to help explore the roots of misconceptions about women propagated through contemporary vocabularies of Western culture. Nine years later Olympukes, 52 satirical pictograms, designed by Jonathan Barnbrook and Marcus McCallion, was developed as a comment to commercialization of the Summer Olympics 2004.3


Pictogram-me is based upon social and participatory design thinking.  Designer Victor Papanek already in the 1970s stated the social responsibility of designers, and wrote in the legendary book «Design for the real world» that designers should «design for people´s needs rather than their wants» (Papanek 1971:219). This field of design might have it´s roots in Action Research, which is a form for research involving the participants in defining and solving problems. One definition is a «systematic inquiry that is collective, collaborative, self-reflective, critical and undertaken by participants in the inquiry» (McCutheon and Jung 1990:148 in Masters 1995:2). Empowerment of participants is essential, and this is highly relevant in Pictogram-me. In the mid-1940s the American psychologist Kurt Lewin described action research as «proceeding in a spiral of steps, each of which is composed of planning, action and the evaluation of the result of action» (Lewin in Masters 1995:1). Lewin argued that to understand and change social conditions, you needed to include those who know and live with the conditions. The participants are often referred to as co-researchers (Bjørndal in Tiller 2004:129). Practitioners are also involved in the reflection on the work (Altricher 1999:3). This is related to how Thomas Lockwood describes a shift towards a more creative and more collaborative way of thinking in design (Loockwood 2010:ix).


In Pictogram-me we have invited people to co-design and to explore how we can develope tools to collect stories for and from challenging life situations. Some of the contributors might see it as a challenge in itself to meet us because of anxiety, shame, or mental and physical challenges. Inspired by Action research and Human centred design we have tested a variety of methods for collecting life stories, searching for visual tools that can support interviews and conversations (Dowling in Tiller 2014:236-240).



There exists a lot of literature about how to collect individual and personal stories, and for example sociologists have developed methods of how to direct «life story interviews» (Dowling in Tiller 2004:237-240, Wideberg in Album, Hansen and Widerberg 2010:220-225). The global design agency IDEO has developed a Human-Centred Design Toolkit and an online resource that addresses how to involve people from the initiation of a design project to its implementation. Different public organizations and universities share their methods.


Inclusive design and people-centred design processes are said to be effective as development processes, because users can play a leading role in defining issues and helping to focus direction, therefor there has been a shift from designing for users, to designing with users, where the user also becomes co-creator (Fuad-Luke 2009:143). As Alastair Fuad-Luke writes in «Design Activism» this shift has been paralleled with recent debate about the social dimensions of design. Participatory design has become mainstream and politically correct, and it appears that there is agreement on the ethical and practical advantages of participatory design approaches, even if the subject itself is debated (Bjögvinsson, Ehn and Hillgren, 2012).


In an article published in the 1960s´Sherry Arnstein (1969:2) describes how citizens can be involved or excluded from development processes. In his «Ladder of citizen participation», Arnstein points at eight different degrees of involving, and relate this to power: «There is a critical difference between going through the empty ritual of participation and having the real power needed to affect the outcome of the process» (Arnstein 1969:2). The top level, citizen control, has much in common with co-design. Language is a powerful tool that might not be equally shared by the participants, thus by using visual communication, in Pictogram-me the aim has been to give the challenged an alternative tool and more power to express themselves. In cooperation and dialogue with the challenged and their supporting organizations we have been searching for different tools for pictogram-based dialogue. Visual tools have for many years been used in conversations wit for example children and people with psychological challenges, and dolls have been used in conversations with children to address difficult subjects.4 Others have used illustrations or pictures to communicate with people with verbal and written communication challenges.5 For example Cartoon Conversation is a visual method developed by Carol Gray, which can help people with autism to understand information and signals that occur in conversation.6 Gray has developed Social Stories, a learning tool that supports the safe and meaningful exchange of information between parents, professionals, and people with autism of all ages.7


Another tool is the KAT-box, originally developed in Denmark for children with Asperger’s Syndrome in a collaboration between Dr. Tony Attwood, psychologist Kirsten Callesen and psychologist Annette Moller Nielsen.8 In this toolkit you amongst other find a kind of thermometer, divided into intervals from zero to ten, where the user can put faces and other visual symbols to judge the intensity of feelings, thoughts, experiences and interests in a concrete way.9


The organization ISAAC (International Society for Augmentative and Alternative Communication) seeks to improve communication skills and provide opportunities to improve the lives of people with serious communication difficulties. The organization works to promote research and development of alternative communication.10 In many cases they use pictograms, and create tools to enable people to speak about difficult subjects like violence. In 2012 they tested 29 pictograms, to find out how people actually read them (Torgny and Kristensen 2012).11 The organization divide pictograms into three groups:

Group 1: Images that are read directly.

Group 2: Images that are understood when they have been explained and linked to an already known concept.

Group 3: Abstract images that must be learned (Torgny and Kristensen 2012:8, translated from Swedish).

The international website «Pictogram – a language in pictures» is a resource developed for people with limited or no ability to speak, read and write, run by National Agency for special needs Education and schools in Sweden, offering free online pictograms for use in different situations. 12 The aim is to make better understanding, supporting thoughts and memory and help formulate feelings and wishes.


In Pictogram-me we are not only looking for visual tools for conversations, but also investigating how pictograms could be used to present the stories for a broader audience, to help create empathy and insight.

Megaphon – the pilot

“We have received lots of good response. Many of the sellers recognize themselves in the images, and they also interpret and discuss them. The ‘Smile’ pictogram we had to take down after two weeks as it provoked both very positive and very negative reactions. For example, there was a salesman who had just joined us, it made he want to light up his heroin when he saw the picture. Others took the irony and thought it was great.”

Silje – Megafon


The Megafon project was the inspiration for Pictogram-Me. In a Pictogram course for 3rd year BA visual communication students we initiated a co-operation with Megafon (a monthly street-magazine where half the sales price goes to the salespeople, substance-users). One of the aims of the course was to test methods of Action Research and Human-centred design, collecting life story interviews and interpreting these stories into pictograms.


As students experienced on the pictogram course, it was not so easy to make contact with people with challenges. The theme group was challenging, drug users can have a varying 'daily form', and could be most difficult to facilitate workshops for, or to arrange a meeting at a time and place. But with Megafon’s good help and dedication the project was implemented through ‘coincidental’ meetings with magazine sellers in premises where the salespeople collected new magazines. Another major challenge was to choose which methods the students should use to start a dialogue with the contact group, and also how students challenged themselves to get out of their own safe world and open themselves to insight and empathy with the theme group. Natural curiosity and respect mixed with a cautious but friendly approach worked best, and good listening abilities were a necessity.

In the development of a pictogrammatic style we asked if we should use an internationally standardized visual language or should the pictograms be developed individually?

All students made their own proposals, finally there was agreement on a standard style to minimalize variations in quality and composition. A collection of Megafon’s favourite pictograms from the course were exhibited in Megafon’s offices and published in the Megafon magazine August 2010).


What did this pilot project show us?

That working with people with challenges, as a theme group was most rewarding, it gave us insight into how rewarding is to work together with people, enjoying insight and solidarity together with the theme group. The project inspired us to pursue the challenge of user-participation.

This was a two-week project for eight students, which was too limited time to facilitate good practices and meeting points with our theme group. Good preparation and testing of methods for collecting ‘data’ and participatory research was needed for a future project, and it proved the necessary for more experimentation in methodology to encourage user-dialogue.


The future project became Pictogram-me.