Picture writing

Picture writing, also known as pictography, is one of the earliest forms of writing. Pictography uses sets of pictures, or pictograms, as a form of script. The Sumerians, who lived in ancient Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq), created the earliest known pictograms in around 3200BC. They used a script known as cuneiform, which combined pictograms and phonograms (signs representing sounds). The pictograms in the cuneiform formed recognisable symbols: for instance, a picture of a cow's head represented a cow; a triangle next to a mountain represented a foreign woman.

Cuneiform was written on to clay tablets with sharpened reeds. It is very hard to make a curved mark with a reed stylus, so the lettering is very linear. The marks made by embedding the hard reed into the squidgey clay created little wedges, and this is where cuneiform gets its name - cuneiform literally means wedge-shaped writing (from the Latin, cuneus meaning 'wedge', and forma meaning 'form'). 

The clay tablets that have been excavated by archeologists record all sorts of fascinating details about Sumerian society - temples built by kings, stories and the business dealings of traders. One such tablet records the number of bakers, brewers and slaves in a community. Cuneiform was in use from around 3200 BC until the 2nd century AD. Although it was originally based on pictures, it developed into a more linear stylised script by around 2800 BC.

At around the same time that the Sumerians were developing cuneiform, the ancient Egyptians were formulating their own system of pictorial signs known as hieroglyphics. The word 'hieroglyph' literally means 'the writing of the gods', from the Greek hieros meaning 'holy', and gluphein meaning 'to engrave'. The hieroglyphic system was extremely complex, and was used in all sorts of texts, from religious prayers and traditional stories to medical manuals and legal documents.

There were thousands of symbols in the hieroglyphic system - snakes and birds, pots and flowers, eyes, human heads, beetles and lizards to name a few. But these symbols did not necessarily directly relate to the objects they represented - a picture of a beetle might only represent a sound rather than an actual beetle. Therefore, hieroglyphics were able to represent nearly all the words in the spoken language, and could deal with abstract as well as concrete ideas.

Pictograms can be used to communicate as quickly and simply as possible


Today our towns and cities are gigantic, chaotic books in themselves, filled as they are with signposts, billboards, hoardings and architectural emblems. There are visual symbols everywhere - from the statues in public squares to the neon lights above our cinemas, from the tempting words on an ice cream van to the green men on our traffic lights, from 'no entry' streets signs to church steeples, from post boxes to the gargantuan images enticing us to spend money.

Pictograms communicate to us every day. There are many contexts in which regular writing would be out of place.

This might be where:

  • a quick understanding and response is required - think of road signs or traffic lights
  • there is limited space for communication - take a look at the labels inside your clothes, or at the symbols on food packaging.
  • it is necessary to communicate to people of many different languages and reading abilities - think of signs in airports, on toilet doors or smiley faces on emails

Imagine how many words would it take to replace all of the information and instructions on this image.

We can navigate a pictographic language quickly and easily if we are familiar with its symbols

Particular signs and markings communicate to drivers and pedestrians on our roads. Computer users interact with desktop and browser icons. We look for warnings on bottles of chemicals and for instructions on the care labels on our clothes.

Although pictograms are standardised symbols, aimed to cross the boundaries of language, all rely upon their context and other codes around them for their full meaning.

Before drivers, cyclists and pedestrians can navigate the roads, they must understand the meanings of certain graphic rules. Look at the three cycle signs. Colour and shape are all significant and can change the meaning of the central sign as well as who is intended to read it. A triangular sign warns of what to expect up ahead; a blue background usually gives a positive instruction, whilst a red circle indicates something forbidden.


In Tokyo, the police force is represented by a cartoon mouse called Pi-Po. Although widely understood in Tokyo, this image might communicate a very different message outside Japan. The UK police force tends to be associated with serious and formal symbolism.

Kawaii, the Japanese word for cute, is a highly influential graphic language in modern Japan. The language is made up of adorable cartoon characters. Cute pictorial symbols are used in all areas of cultural life in Japan, from entertainment, food and clothing to banks, government documents and airlines! The Asahi bank uses Miffy, a bunny from a children's book illustration, as its logo. In 1992 the word kawaii was the most widely used in modern Japanese.