I am in the process of creating some infographics for some design thinking methods. I need to translate sometimes complex (but with common themes) ideas into visuals.

To put it a different way, why does it, when you see an arrow pointing right, indicate that you should go or look right?

  • 2
    I have mentioned this elsewhere, but there is an entire scientific field dedicated to this: semiotics en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Semiotics i might give a run-down here, but it will take some time.
    – benteh
    Commented Feb 26, 2014 at 20:37

1 Answer 1


Short answer:

  1. Use cultural conventions and associations. There are millions, humans soak up conventions. The shape of arrows are a convention, as are warning signs, 'save disks', etc. Spot and use them.
  2. Consider affordances: if something looks like X can be done with it, looking at it brings to mind X.
  3. Make sure the symbolism goes the right way. It's never "What imagery comes to mind while I'm thinking about X?", it's "What imagery brings X to mind?". Very different (much harder!).
  4. Simplify the image. A good exercise I was taught is start with a 16 x 16 grid: any deviation from those grid lines beyond connecting grid corners with straight lines or curves must be essential.
  5. Test it. Show people, ask them to talk about what they see and what they think of (no clues!)
  6. Test it again. You could mix up symbols and labels to see how easily people can match them up.
  7. Test some more.

Longer answer: the design of signs, symbols and pictograms is a whole field of study in its own right. Some starting points...

  • Wow! May I add: use the principles of physics. Gravity is always pointed downwards, so in flow-charts, the logical flow of things would be from the top downward. For an arrow: if something moves, anything attached to it wil —because of drag—, lag behind. Imagine a spear with ribbons: it would atomatically take the shape of an arrow. It's even stronger then cultural convention.
    – Ideogram
    Commented Apr 29, 2015 at 8:46

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