Using Symbology: Visual Metaphors in Content Design

A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words

You probably have heard the saying “a picture is worth a thousand words” in one form or another. Indeed, we use visuals to tell stories, simplify complex data, capture concepts, alert users, guide users, and more.

Regardless of the application, though, visuals appeal to the human mind. We are wired to dedicate significant brain power to visual processing. In fact, we can assimilate visual information much quicker and remember it more easily compared to written content.

Moreover, research suggests that at least 65% of humans are visual learners. However, not all visuals are equal. While regular illustrations simply depict objects, people, or data, visual metaphors offer an analogy for written content. In other words, visual metaphors have symbolic meaning. And we can find visual metaphors everywhere in our personal and professional lives.

For example, many traffic signs are essentially visual metaphors that capture traffic rules. Another example is symbols on product packaging that classify products and indicate compliance with specific standards. Likewise, software would not be the same without the use of pictograms and icons to make graphical user interfaces more intuitive.

Or, perhaps you use symbols for your product documentation as navigational aids and to place attention on selected content. All in all, visual metaphors have many benefits in content design and allow us to capture meaning in a concise manner.

The Practicality of Visual Metaphors


One major advantage of visual metaphors is that they embrace minimalism in content design. Of course, we could express the same idea or meaning through descriptive wording. However, visual metaphors can say more with less if done right. And sometimes offering a visual analogy for an idea or concept can be more effective and powerful.


Overall, visual design elements offer better standardization compared to written text. Although you can standardize text elements to establish consistency, you will not achieve the same versatility and portability that a visual representation provides. This is one reason why visual metaphors, particularly symbols, have been developed into international standards. The common use of symbols has made it easy for users to recognize them and apply their meaning correctly.

Additionally, several industries have established consistent procedures for the application of symbology. One such sector is the medical device industry. As a regulated industry, symbols are a vital element of product labeling to ensure safe product use and to indicate regulatory compliance.

Following are examples of ISO symbology standards:

  • ISO 5807: Information processing symbols
  • ISO 7000: Equipment symbols
  • ISO 7001: Public information symbols
  • ISO 7010: Hazard symbols/safety signs
  • ISO 15223: Medical device symbols


Another benefit of visual metaphors is their portability across products, devices, and languages. By minimizing or eliminating the use of text, visual metaphors can be language independent. For instance, the consistent visual representation of traffic signs in the EU eliminates the need for custom designs by each member state.

Similarly, pictograms and icons offer language portability for software applications. And since pictograms and icons usually require less screen space, it makes them a convenient choice for navigational and menu items. In addition, users can often still recognize pictograms and icons at smaller sizes compared to reduced text sizes. This makes it easier to provide a consistent look and feel for software across device types with varying screen sizes.

Designing Your Own Visual Metaphors

It is only logical that companies might want to develop their own symbols, pictograms, and icons. However, designing your own visual metaphors should be done for good reasons. To better determine the best approach, you could consider the following basic questions.

Are you part of a regulated industry?

If your products and their labeling are governed by regulations, you might have to use established symbology created by a Standards Development Organization (SDO). But even if you have some flexibility to create customized designs, you will likely have to consider additional requirements and follow a prescribed procedure.

For example, the FDA does not allow any “homegrown” symbols for use in product labeling. Instead, companies must establish proposed symbols in a standard through an SDO. In addition, you must include a symbols glossary with your product documentation. Or you must list the URL for the location of the glossary if your product label cannot accommodate it.

Does it make business sense?

There is an added cost to designing your own symbology. Aside from investing time, you might have to hire or pay a graphic designer to access the right skillset. So, unless it provides clear benefits such as a tangible differentiator for your products, reinventing the wheel might not make good business sense. If it is simpler to utilize off-the-shelf symbology while achieving the same outcome, you could be better off doing that instead.

Is your own design intuitive and culturally appropriate?

Also, there is more to symbol design than simply creating a nice-looking visual metaphor. For example, comprehension and cultural fit are essential for good content design. If your target audience involves users from diverse cultures and global regions, you could encounter rejection by some user groups.

Or your design might not be intuitive enough to enable easy comprehension. In addition, demographics such as educational level, user type (consumer/professional), regional behaviors and beliefs, and color selection can affect how users perceive visual metaphors.

One such mishap occurred when Gerber started marketing their baby food in selected African regions. Due to lower literacy rates in these regions, products typically depict the content on the packaging. As a result, consumers were horrified to see a depiction of a baby’s face on the baby food jar. So, it was no surprise to see dropping sales for Gerber in those regions after its initial market entry.

However, not all mishaps have to be this dramatic. Generally, we tend to incorporate elements in our visual metaphors that reflect our own culture and experiences. When Microsoft first developed an icon to represent the concept of email, the icon depicted a mailbox type that is common in the US. Eventually, Microsoft changed the icon to a more universally recognizable envelope to improve portability into other languages and cultures.


Ongoing globalization continues to shape travel, trade, and how we communicate across cultural and regional boundaries. Visual communication can provide the lowest common denominator for us to convey ideas and concepts. Moreover, visual metaphors are a great way to supplement and enhance written content. They allow us to convey information in a concise manner while enabling portability.

For some industries and products, companies must follow established symbology requirements to stay compliant. This is where international standards help align the appearance of symbology and promote consistent labeling practices. However, you could encounter country or market-specific requirements that you might also have to consider.

Overall, though, using symbols, pictograms, and icons in content design and for product labeling assumes easy recognition and comprehensibility. Therefore, if you choose to develop your own visual metaphors, you might want to consider testing your designs. It would provide a proof of concept and ensure that your visual metaphors are culturally appropriate and easy to understand.

For instance, ISO 9186 provides guidance on testing methodologies for visual communication of information in buildings and other places, and symbology used for services to the public. This standard consists of two parts: (1) Methods for testing of comprehensibility and (2) Methods for testing of perceptual quality.

Regardless of the path to using visual metaphors, the end user ultimately defines the quality and effectiveness of presented visuals. This, of course, means that we need to take the time to know who our users are and how they process content.

Leave a comment