Iconography and the Evolution of Written Language

Abby Mueller
4 min readMar 19, 2021

Icons are used everywhere today as visual cues for our interactions both digitally and in our physical environments. We may have become so accustomed to some of them, in fact, that we don’t even consciously recognize that they are there. Instead, we’ve programmed our brains to respond and interact based on the subconscious commands they convey. It’s natural, of course, for our brains to look for shortcuts that result in the least amount of cognitive load for us to function, however this is not a new tech concept or a way to brainwash the masses into falling in line; this type of communication can be traced back to the earliest forms of human language.

The Sumerian language can be traced all the way back to 3500 B.C. (oldest.com) and is a type of cuneiform writing which is comprised of ideograms, or symbols which “…express an idea rather than a word or sound, and thus can technically be understood in any language.” (ancient.eu). The Sumerians may have been the first to employ this communication style, however they would not be the last. Many early cultures employed similar iconographic and mnemonic techniques, including Egyptians, Greeks, Chinese, and Arabic peoples. Languages such as these, including the Sumerian language, were used for thousands of years. At first they were implemented to keep business and finance account records, but were later found to include poetry, history, laws, and literature (history.com). These evolved over time into a more concise alphabet, which contains significantly less characters and are meant to represent speech sounds rather than ideas. Nevertheless, we never fully abandoned our use of symbols to convey richer meaning and connect our words with concepts.

A Sumerian bill of sale showing their traditional “wedge-shaped” cuneiform text

Fast forward thousands of years to today’s culture, and you will still see symbols reentering the landscape all around us in the form of icons. These are our modern-day adaptation of the cuneiform language we have been using all along. We often think of these in the context of our mobile devices and computers, however when you pause to think about what you’re really looking at, you’ll realize most all of them are derived from things we interact with in the physical world. They are meant to convey meaning without requiring the use of an alphabetic language, thus reducing the effort we need to process what to do next.

Think of the universal symbol for power. It’s a circle with a vertical line through one side of it. We all know it and we all know how to interact with it. But where did it come from, and why were those shapes chosen to represent it rather than say, a lightning bolt or a lightbulb? In this case it came from a much more technical place. Originally, power controls were labeled simply as “On” or “Off”. As technology advanced and became more prominent in the world, the words were reduced to “O” and “I” as a nod to binary code, in which 1’s indicate a “true/on”, and 0’s indicate a “false/off” (inshorts.com). From there it’s not a far stretch to see how the symbol took it’s shape. Although a simple design, it has become a universal symbol that can be understood in any language.

Written language has evolved from symbols to letters in order to create a concise and simple way to communicate. This change has resulted in thousands of unique languages across the globe throughout time, some of which have not survived. In the search for simplicity, we have inadvertently created more barriers to global communication. In the cases of dead languages, we may observe what history has left but the language divide means we may never be able to fully understand it.

However, something interesting has emerged as technology has taken over our lives: logography is back. We saw symbolic language resurface in the form of icons in the early 80’s as part of a graphical user interface on the Xerox Star computer (interaction-design.org). Once again, symbols are replacing (or supplementing) our words to make things easier to understand. Icons can be used to give instructions on their own, however they are still stronger when presented with supporting text. Until we have a truly universal language, these can act as an aid to that end.

Symbols and icons can be found on everyday things

Icons are a way for us to communicate with anyone the world around; something we learned early on when fewer languages existed. We now have the means to reach anyone around the world with the technology that exists and continues to advance. What we don’t have is a universal spoken or written language — but we get closer to bridging the gap when we communicate not only with words, but with symbols. This convergence of new and old methods can help eliminate confusion, save time, improve safety conditions, and open up opportunities to live life more seamlessly. It may be said that it is more important today than ever before in history to find and use common language to connect us to each other. Will this be how we cross that gargantuan hurdle? Perhaps. Whatever the next evolution, it seems that for now, we will continue the work of our ancestors and carve out our part of the story for future generations.

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Abby Mueller

I am a UX designer and storyteller. I infuse technology with purpose to engage, connect, and inspire in a unique and beautiful way.