What cuneiform has to do with modern icons and why is it milestone in today’s visual communication?

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The idea of an icon seems obvious now but have you ever thought about why they have such a form?

It’s hard to imagine a world without pictograms and symbols — from road signs, to mobile interface icons, to universal symbols such as heart or thumbs-up. They are very practical — save space, don’t need to be translated, convey information quickly and can also be decorative. But where did those small pictures actually come from and why they look and why they look and work the way that now seem obvious to us?

First pictograms from thousands of years ago

Icons, signs and symbols have been with us since no formal language was developed yet. And that’s a very long time ago.

From the beginning of our existence, one of the most important conditions of survival was the possibility of understanding basic living matters. Our tribal ancestors needed to inform others, what they thought, felt, did, experienced, believed. Before written communication grew in use, there were verbal and non-verbal ways to communicate through sounds and gestures but they were only beneficial in close-knit groups.

Research on the human race shows that usage of pictograms is known from ancient times. This can be seen, among other things, in the ancient drawings of the cave walls, made thousands of years ago.

Cave painting. 16.000 BC. Lascaux, France.

These very first cave paintings and drawings made by settlers of ancient times consist of signs and symbols. Numerous studies suggest that cave drawings and paintings are the foundations of communication with non-verbal visual language. These are representations of single animal and human figures but in the later periods more complex cave drawings were made: they include narration of warfare, dancers, animals, hunters.

If there’s one form of symbol-based communication that we’ve been using since the earliest humans learned how to carve or paint on rocks, it’s the pictogram.

Simple drawings were one of the first way of communication and evolved with the development of tools, materials, humanity as well as abstract thinking and associative abilities. The shapes, images of animals, people and nature dated back for thousands of years that served people as records of their experiences, were in fact very simple. Mainly because the abstract thinking was not so complex and so sophisticated at that time, compared to today’s ideas. The thinking process of an early man was much simpler, people were not able to generate a complex idea. Therefore, the paintings in the caves consisted of very simple shapes. This essence, thanks to simplification, not only shaped the origin of pictograms, but also started the history of iconography.

Cuneiform and the beginning of ideograms. And why it was groundbreaking.

Studies show that primitive people switched to cuneiform in the Sumerian ages around 3200 BC, whereas they used their fingers and also various tools to illustrate and describe not only objects but also messages. With civilization, community that had developed significantly, people started to think in a more complex way and more advanced ideas started to emerge.

The first known examples of thought records date back to as early as the 4th millennium BC. These are characters that were carved in clay and made up mostly of straight lines. Heavily stylized drawings are either a representation of complete objects or their characteristic parts. The characters that are presented in a direct way are mixed with geometric shapes that have more abstract meaning. In this way people started to represent their more advanced ideas and complex concepts.


In the 3th millennium BC, the appearance of the Sumerian writing completely changed. The decisive factor was most probably the need to exchange information. The most easily available writing material of this region were clay tablets, whereas the tool was a wedge (cuneus in Latin, hence the name cuneiform writing) — the tool that makes a triangle mark. Gradually, this technique replaced the earlier scratching technique. Cuneiform writing is an example of the development of form that evolved not only as a result of human development, but also due to the material limitations.

Over the next three millennia, the characters of the cuneiform writing still changed and simplified. More and more characters were mainly based on ideas and abstract forms. Over time, the original pictorial nature became phonetic, and the number of characters was gradually reduced.

God, Heaven — from pictograph to Assyrian cuneiform

Civilization of society and transition to cuneiform gave rise to ideograms, thanks to which we now use pictograms in an effective way and in complex contexts such as road signs or user manuals.

Pictograms, icons, symbols, ideograms… What is actually the difference?

All these concepts are very close to each other and they usually partially overlap.

A pictogram describes an image or sign that is created to express an information, or message. Pictograms hhave been popularized by common use in software and on the web, better known as icons displayed on a computer screen.

An ideogram is a pictogram that represents an idea or concept, independent of any particular language and specific words or phrases. It allows us to present more complex messages. Not just an object directly, but also a not necessarily physical concept that applies to this object. For example, a diagonal line, often red, represents the the idea of prohibition. In fact, the most used pictograms today are ideograms.

Symbol could also have a form of a pictogram, but not only. It is an image referring usually to a different meaning than the contents of the image directly represent. For example, the image-symbol of the crucified Jesus is not perceived as drastic content, but as a symbol of the Christian faith. Besides, the symbol can be expressed in many ways and can take more abstract or very simplified forms. The same symbolic content will also be conveyed to us by a simple hand-made or even a hand-drawn cross.

A light bulb as a simple pictogram (light bulb), pictogram — ideogram (light), symbol (idea).

It seems that an ideogram is the limit of the advancement of information that a pictogram can convey. At least at this point. A pictogram must be understood immediately in order to function properly, and more complex concepts could require more thought. In spite of appearances, conveying ideas is already a big step when it comes to human abstract thinking. Imagine what the pictograms prohibiting something would look like, if we didn’t know the idea of a graphic representation of the prohibition (a strike-through), or marking a direction if we didn’t know such a simple thing as an arrow.

Throughout history, pictograms are one of the most important ways of communication and have always been an important bridge between word and image. From images engraved onto the walls of caves and rocks to the user interfaces of today’s technology, pictograms are evolving all the time and are a constant part of human life. Because of their practical nature, they are used everywhere — as traffic signs, in apps, text content, to indicate physical places such as train stations or public toilets. It’s a small but powerful visual element that enables us to communicate a difficult concept or transform words into a simple image.

What next?

Pictograms took on a different character with the appearance of a new tool, which is the computer and graphical user interface. Computer icons appeared in this form as we know them today in the 1970s at the legendary Xerox Palo Alto Research Center laboratories. They were part of so-called desktop metaphor, that treats the computer monitor as a virtual desktop, trying to make use of people’s natural reactions and associations with using sheets of papers, trashcan, documents or folders.

Nowadays, the concept of an icon and all the gestures associated with it, like clicking, double-clicking, selecting, dragging, seems natural for most of the computer users. Their form changes very slowly. In fact, mainly visually, because the concept of the icon has hardly changed since Xerox Alto was introduced 50 years ago. However, based on the current pace of technology development, the icons will continue to evolve and we can expect new forms and concepts of pictograms or maybe something totally new that will replace them but has not been invented yet.

What cuneiform has to do with modern icons and why is it milestone in today’s visual communication? was originally published in UX Planet on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.