Be the Artist: The Universal Language of Iconography


This summer’s Be the Artist 2021 will help readers discover visual art-related words.

The Word: Iconography

Iconography is everywhere, and we see it all the time. It comes from the Greek word for image, “ikon.”

This term can refer to early, more elaborate paintings with certain images being attached to meaning. This was the case in religious art: a lamb in a picture may symbolize Jesus in Christian churches, or a dove near an image of a woman may mean Venus in Greek mythology.

The word may be Greek, but the idea is universal, as cultures worldwide used pictures to symbolize words and ideas for centuries, from Egyptian hieroglyphics to Native American pictographs

Artists through the ages used their own iconography in their works. Frida Kahlo often used animal images (butterfly meant rebirth, for example) and Salvador Dalí’s egg denoted a soft exterior beneath a hard shell.

Today, the artform of iconography is prominent in graphic design. We use iconography for everything from identifying a commercial brand by a symbol alone, or following roadside directions and safety precautions in a place of work. We “click on” computer icons everyday. When we want to send something, we look for the “arrow”” icon, and we click on the familiar “shopping basket” to check out of an online store. Iconography even gives us an efficient way to expresses something as complicated as personal feelings or opinions with the use of emojis. Everyone knows what a “thumbs up” or a “happy face” means.

From pictographs to pictograms to religious icons and emojis, iconography uses visual clues to help communicate ideas.

It also works in currency. Without having to learn another language, people from all over the world can distinguish between American dollars, Euros, Yen, and even Bitcoin just by looking at the symbol.

As much as we want to escape it, iconography is everywhere, from fine art to commercial graphics, and from mapmaking to video game designs.

Deep down, all of these symbols, whether practical or poetic, are visual works or art immediately linking many of us to something even deeper. Current day iconographer, author and teacher Peter Pearson, is often quoted on the significance these visual guides:

“Iconography, good iconography, strives to convey invisible reality in a visible form,” he said.

Sports pictograms help identify the various sports, such as the Olympics games. Try some pictograms for make believe worlds. Images: Lisa Tate

The Project: Superhero Sports Icons

Whether or not you watched any of the 2020 Olympic games in Tokyo (being shown in 2021), there was one very interesting bit of history that came from the opening ceremony, and it was a direct celebration of Iconography, more specifically, “pictograms.”

In the ceremony, interpretive dancers showed off the 50 Olympic Sports pictograms, which were created by Japan during the 1964 Olympic in Tokyo to overcome language barriers

These are still used today, with even more created over the years, and are the inspiration of our project: create some pictogram and icons for sports superhuman beings.

What sports icons would symbolize the various competitions among the Amazonians in Themyscira? What would be even icons for pod races or sports in galaxy’s far, far away?

There are two main rules to this project:

  1. Keep it simple
  2. Make it easy to recognize

First, pick a competition or create one among favorite superhuman or alien characters.

Now, look at the pictograms and icons for different sports, and see what they have in common. All of them have some sort of very basic, easy to recognize “human” form.

The basic “pictogram” figure is just a fleshed out stick figure.

Although people come in all shapes and sizes, there is a basic form we all recognize: one head, a body, and four limbs. Boring? Yes, but also easy to understand. Draw a basic figure for reference, by starting with a stick figure and fleshing it out with rounded limbs and a thicker body.

Now, think about how these would look different in different worlds. Would there be horns? Wings? Tails? Would we have longer limbs…or extra ones? Maybe some sports for flying beings may require a different body shape than water-based races.

Whatever you use, remember the first rule: keep it simple.

Now, different sports often come with certain extras, such a vehicles, equipment, uniforms, or landscapes. A simple circle icon added to a figure can denote a wheelchair race or bicycling event. A small arch and line can turn into a bow and arrow, and wavy lines can denote water.

Come up with some simple images to help make the sport as easy to identify as you can.

Some of these are more detailed than others. In the 2020 Tokyo symbols, the weightlifting is much more simple than the equestrian pictograms.

Here is where we use these accessories to follow rule number two: make it recognizable.

Designs sports pictograms should included simple images that transcends language barriers.

How can you tell a sport for gladiator type battle from one that is a race? What would these competitors be holding? Would they wear something specific? What about the backdrop? Do we need to see a mountaintop or volcano? Would this be in outer space or below in another dimension?

Once all these factors are taken into consideration, merge them together into one icon that someone will instantly think “Podracing,” “Giant Robot Battles,” or “Quidditch.”

Some Middle Earth Sports. Can You figure out what they are?

Try to make at least three different “sports” symbols just for the sake of variety, but if you’re ambitious enough to think of 50 different pictograms.

Once done, you can put them all together on one poster, sort of like a “guide” or handout an audience member might get at an event or print them out on sticker paper like game souvenirs, for people who speak any language…even otherworldly ones, may recognizes their favorite “super sport.”

A picture is worth a thousand words, and well-crafted iconography can also cover hundreds of languages as well.

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