Sign of the times

Picking up the baton of my series of guest writers is Michael Smith. He started work as a journalist then worked in public relations for the police service for 13 years. The last seven years were in internal communications and last month he set up his own internal comms consultancy based on the edge of the Lake District in the UK and now specialises in change communication and engagement strategies.

Sign of the times
Caterpillar- tracked diggers began tearing up the road a hundred metres from my front door this morning.

The first I heard was the noise. Did I go and investigate? Didn’t need to. A red-bordered triangular sign nearby told me everything I needed to know: “roadworks.”

Except it didn’t say that – what I saw was an image of a stick person shovelling a heap of….actually I’m not exactly sure what they are shovelling, but nevertheless I got the picture – literally.

Signs and symbols are today everywhere imparting information, and the origins of course lie in cave paintings from the Stone Age far pre-dating the written language.

But the argument for using symbols when you can also draw on words? That’s a much more recent debate.

It was Viennese social scientist Otto Neurath in the inter-war years who, with help from German-born artist Gerd Arntz, developed a method to communicate complex information on society, economy and politics in simple images, called Isotype  

Many of the 4,000 images or pictograms they created are familiar today and were designed not only to inform a largely illiterate workforce, but also to overcome barriers of language.

It’s the last point which should be of greatest interest to internal communicators. Within our own workplaces, we have many different languages from scientific jargon to management speak. Unfortunately, that language is often misused as code to exclude a section of an organisation (‘them’) from the conversations of another team (‘us’). Information is power. So, they reason, better to use language to keep that information to ourselves.

The bigger picture
Symbols are much more egalitarian – and many organisations are increasingly acknowledging their usefulness in explaining the bigger picture of corporate strategy to their staff – namely, ‘this is where we are and this is where we want to go.’

It’s not a case of dumbing-down, but rather guiding staff to interpret the organisation’s aims by making the connection to the way they work.

Where I’ve seen so-called ‘big pictures’ or ‘rich pictures’ work is in breaking down those very language barriers between teams and in conveying a vast amount of information simply.

These maps on large sheets of paper are used to draw people in because of their very difference from the usual strategy documents, and require staff to be more active in interpreting the information in sessions led by managers or their colleagues.

Their beauty lies in their very lack of words which encourages employees to come up with their own – leading to conversations, discussions, and problem-solving dialogue. 

Using symbols and graphic illustrations is a good way to communicate corporate strategy as a whole – and talking of hole, I’m now going to look into the one in my road…

Thank you for sharing your thoughts Michael, I’m particularly interested in the insight you’ve shared into Isotype, thank you.

What’s your view on signs and symbols and how do you see them fitting into the world of internal comms? You can leave your thoughts below. 

Post author: Michael Smith @MichaelYodel


  1. Euan Gillies (@egillies) says:

    Great article Michael.

    When I worked in the comms team of a disability charity I saw how symbols can break down boundaries. In the case of communicating to people who have learning disabilities they help them understand messages more clearly and as a result, to live more independent lives.

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