Significance of Information – A day with Stephen McCarthy

Today we had the privilege of having Stephen McCarthy come in to the studio to do a one day workshop with us as part of our field project, the significance of information. Stephen works for the Government digital services and is currently the head of design of a programme called Government as a platform. Stephen firstly did a talk with us on Iconography and Pictograms, the we did a task with him later in the day.

Pictograms – an introduction

Iconography and pictograms

Iconography and pictograms are usually used for signalling direction or instruction, to get to do something. We read imagery in 3 different semiotic levels: Syntactic, Semantic and Pragmatic. ….

  • Isotype – pictures whose details are clear to everyone, are free from the limits of language: they are international.

Thoughts to consider when creating  pictograms

  • The art of implication – what you leave out is just as important as what you put in. The viewer will fill in the gaps.
  • Ask yourself what are the criterial aspects of the thing you are representing
  • Develop consistent systems and patterns. Re use elements.
  • Gerd Arntz
  • Stereotypes can also be effective
  • Cultural context can have a big influence
  • The biggest problem with images is that they are ambiguous
  • A helping language – Otto Neurath

Text and Language

  • Relay – extension of meaning the words work with the image in telling the story
  • Anchorage – meaning is defined by the text
  • Using s second image to aid/elaborate on understanding – this acts instead of textual elements

Stephen’s work: creating visual Can

  • Pictograms as modes of reporting instead of modes of instructing
  • Outcomes: A story, a day in time, a period of time (a month)
  • The story – London Riots
  • The Newspaper – Turned a newspaper from start to finish into a pictogram
  • The headlines – picked headlines from the mail the mirror the star and the sun


Our task for the rest of the day was to create a pictogram story based on a article we had been given in pairs. We had to create 8 to 12 images, and explain the story in the article from start to finish. Me and Amber worked together on this project and we were given a article entitled; “Tall salesman banned after driving with head sticking out of roof”. We were lucky with our article because it was almost quick comical and it made it quite easy for us to create a visual narrative for the story.

We began by break the story down into the main facts so we had 10 facts to base our images from, after this we planned out our pictograms by looking for the best way to visually represent each fact that we had picked out.

After drawing out all our ideas neatly and presenting them in the studio, Stephen assigned a different group to each of our pieces and the group had to try and relay our article back to us by literally just seeing what they understood from the visual narrative we had created with the pictogram stories. Me and Amber were very pleased because the group who looked at ours managed to tell the story more or less. What we found was that its hard to represent little extra facts, such as the fact he was a car salesman without it getting too complicated. However as Stephen pointed out, this is ok because the idea of pictograms is that they are too be used alongside text or to tell a very basic story.


Overall, I really enjoyed the day with Stephen. It was really interesting to learn about his work as part of the Government, and the workshop really made me think about how I could simplify information into one simple pictogram to convey a story effectively.



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