This is excerpted from The Lifted Brow No. 8, which we published back in February. But Jez writes about design for every issue! What.
One of my favourite pieces of design measures no more than an inch square and is mostly found in bathrooms throughout the UK. A simple pictogram of a half-shaven face, its significance is bittersweet for me given that I’m still coming to terms with the underwhelming state of my own facial hair, and its primary audience is people looking to trim their stupid, bountifully hairy faces. I can jettison my bitterness in this case, however:
Check those robust eyebrows! That mighty nose! The electric cable dovetailing with the curve of the stubbled chin! He’s a triumph of tiny details, and one far more nuanced than perhaps he ever should have been. You’ll find him on low-voltage power points that replace mains sockets, usually above the words “Shavers only”—no credit, and no trademark/copyright symbols. Framed in white plastic and without attribution, his expression suddenly seems startled and uneasy, however much the eyebrows suggest otherwise. Much in the way a sane person might try to locate a home for a lost puppy, I decided to use all the misdirected obsessive-compulsive rigour found naturally in graphic designers to locate this little guy’s owner.
My first guess was that a fittings manufacturer had commissioned a designer to create him, or had possibly used somebody in-house. (Was he even created by a designer? As a pictogram, there’s something distinctly playful about him, and an economic approach to his geometry. If he was created by a non-designer, I’d like to shake their hand. Then possibly commission them.) Locating and contacting these manufacturing companies was difficult, probing them about their design history futile, and a cursory survey of Tumblr and Twitter followers revealed no answers either. My immediate resources exhausted, I even failed to get an answer from my usual last-ditch destination for impossible questions, the (UK-based) text answering service 63336, although they did helpfully mention that the electric razor was invented in 1931 by Jacob Schick of Iowa. So there’s that.
The more investigative dead-ends I reached, the more helpless my bearded friend’s expression appeared. Eventually I came to the conclusion that he might have simply originated from a standardised collection of symbols—like those available from the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO), who sell packs of now-ubiquitous pictograms as seen in public and domestic locations the world over. Doomed to continued anonymity despite my best efforts, I decided to grant him a small measure of grace: the clean-shaven face he had been pining for all these years.
Pictograms like this one are a dependable part of any graphic designer’s remit, but unless they take on particular cultural significance in the public eye or garner enough plaudits in design circles, it can be tough to trace them back to their creators. (The title of this column, The Transformer, is respectfully borrowed from the work of Otto Neurath, who, along with his wife Marie, the illustrator Gerd Arntz and others, created the Isotype pictogram system in the early 1930s, which is enormously revered by designers to this day. They referred to putting information into visual form as “transforming”.) Pictograms take the form of simple graphic symbols typically used to complement public information systems such as signage, maps and manuals. They tell you which urinal you should be using, where your nearest fire exit is located, and which sheer blind drops you should avoid unless you’re planning on driving into the sea. Not to mention, lest we forget, what exactly you should be plugging into the sockets on your bathroom wall. Pictograms aim to create a shared visual shorthand, independent of culture, gender, nationality and—crucially—language, to communicate content as simply and effectively as possible. As if it weren’t already clear, I’m fascinated by them.
A frequently-referenced touchstone of the field is the work produced by German designer Otl Aicher for the 1972 Olympics in Munich. Aicher’s branding encompassed posters, signage, uniforms, flags, maps, interiors and much more, including—famously—approximately 180 pictograms, including one for every sport. His modernist leanings produced a methodical but warm and inclusive identity, with a particularly significant colour scheme developed from the colours of the Olympic rings, neglecting red and black due to their links to the Nazi party (the games were regarded as part of an ongoing attempt by Germany to move beyond their stubborn history and portray themselves as a newly-progressive nation). His pictograms were especially salient, however, and have become the benchmark by which every subsequent Olympic brand is judged. Not only this, but visual echoes of his work—the skinny, mathematically precise bodies and faceless perfect-circle heads—are still to be found in symbols and signs today.
It was coming to the work of Aicher, and more crucially Gerd Arntz, that made me understand why pictograms resonate so much with me. (Besides respecting the terrifying amount of skill and patience they require to create and refine.) I find an unexpected by-product of the neutral nature of pictograms is a poignancy that by definition they shouldn’t demonstrate. They are hopelessly dour-looking things—rigid, frozen, eternally stuck hailing a simplified cab or riding halfway up an elevator. Scott McCloud, in Understanding Comics, talks about how the simplified style of comic book illustration opens up the possibilities for interpreting the human form. A photograph of a face suggests one person, but a simple line drawing could be almost anybody—in his words, creating a universality innate to cartoon imagery. This is also true of pictograms—the simplified style means that anyone should be able to project themselves onto the figure. But it also suggests a wealth of unintended emotion to be inferred. This is not helped by the fact that the majority of pictographic figures have no facial features at all, which leaves them looking positively eerie. Arntz’s Isotype work is particularly expressive—he contributed over 4,000 pictograms to the collection, and his figures have a distinctly downtrodden air about them, hangdog posture and all. They seem more human than Aicher’s army of athletes, with countless tiny details—a hunched shoulder, a hand in a pocket, an upwards gaze—allowing just the slightest emotional purchase.
Obsessing over little details is an arrow that should sit happily in any designer’s quiver. It’s the reason that our newspapers are legible, and that our road signs are functional. It also perhaps explains why I found myself so taken with the bearded man. He could have been so uninspired and ephemeral, but the few scant features he does have suggest a designer trying to inject something extra, to create something that feels as human as it looks. Mission accomplished, mystery designer.
Jez Burrows is a designer and illustrator based in Edinburgh. His clients include The New York Times, WIRED, GOOD, and Monocle.