How Pictures as Words Came Long Before Emoji

Traditionalists often lament how “Millennials” are losing their ability to communicate, thanks to the widespread use of abbreviated text messages and smileys, emoticons, or — most recently — emoji. Regardless of the name, the latter refer to small, simple graphics that are used to convey emotion or meaning. Emoji are often used in text messages on phones or social media like Twitter or Facebook Before these or even the Internet came into existence, however, Generation X, Baby Boomers, and everyone who came before them have already been guilty of the same: replacing words with pictures is just so common, they don’t realize it.


Although great works of literature can probably convey more information with precision to more people than paintings and drawings, pictures are superior to writing when it comes to practical use. Machines and devices can be sold and used worldwide if their controls are marked with symbols rather than words, as no translation or even literacy would be necessary. Since usage involves relatively simple ideas, it can also look “cleaner” to use a basic drawing or figure than to print a few words on each button.


Two of the most rudimentary concepts in the world, “up” and “down,” can be easily depicted by arrows pointing in the respective direction. They can be simplified further to become two triangles, or the arrowheads of the arrows, without losing any meaning. My friend Brad Pilon brought this to my attention, he said that on a treadmill or exercise bike, for example, the manufacturer may even use a V and an upside-down V to indicate something more complex, such as increased difficulty, length of time, or speed. A new user could also easily figure out that a heart or EKG (heartbeat graph) symbol next to those buttons relates to heart rate. In fact, the most basic treadmill control panels may feature little more than these simplified arrows, a heart, and a number pad.

symbol list for tourists health


Other symbols useful for diet- and fitness-related equipment may include:


-A clock or stopwatch, which indicates time elapsed or remaining;

-A walking or running stick figure, for speed or fitness mode;

-Footprints or shoe prints, to mark distance or speed;

-A hill, symbolizing incline levels;

-Flames, meaning calories used;

and -A house, which returns the user to the main screen.


Of course, every device or equipment will include a Power button. Besides bearing one of the few symbols that have become standardized and easily recognized across the world, this button may even be left blank — simply making it larger than the other buttons or coloring it red is a clear indicator of its purpose.

This was just one of many forms of graphical needs that people the world over require on a daily basis without sparing a thought for the process that goes on behind the scenes to positively increase the user experience. More on that over at wikipedia


Before complaining that the popularity of emoji is eroding the culture of words, think of the ways in which graphics have already replaced words in the world, including on household electronics and equipment. They are more common and handy than most people believe — and they’re here to stay.

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