Do You Realize How Often You Already Use Pictogram Symbols?

This post is part of my series How to Travel Journal Like a Mapmaker
Here, I illustrate my hand drawn sheets of pictogram symbols.

Seeing the World in Symbols

Pictograms are the type of symbol we see frequently on our travels and without even thinking what their meaning is, we comprehend them no matter what language we speak.

Toilet symbols are pictographs

Along with the International Code of Signage, pictograms (or pictographs) achieve another layer of meaning –
Pictograms inserted on a triangular shaped sign warns us that there’s a hazard ahead; whereas circular signs are instructional, and tell us something is prohibited.

Toilet Use Malaysia


Your regular topographic map is awash with symbols –

Some symbols require a key to decode (such as sub-classes of churches with or without a spire) but where space permits, pictograms are preferred for their ease of comprehension.
Pictogram symbol for a camping caravan park

And from the story-mappers point of view – pictograms are magnificent as being minimalistically simple… they require minimalistic artistic skills to produce!

To get your pictogram symbol juices flowing I’ve hand-drawn a few sheets to show you some examples…


Pictogram Symbols for the Landscape

Pictograph Symbols to represent landscape

Add a few hills to your story-map and you’re immediately in a landscape!

Changing the solid line for a dotted line turns grassy hills into sand dunes 😉
(We talked about line types here)

Add a fence and a couple of fluffy clouds on 4 pins and you have sheep in the fields.

Pointy hills make mountains.

Pointy hills with a zigzag line below the summits adds a snow line.

The house symbol can specifically mean someone’s house – But often I use it as a symbol for a place I’ve come from, or am going to.

Urban landscapes are easy rectangles and with a few lines or squares across their front, they appear to have windows.

Showing the urban landscape with a symbol

The bottom example gives more a sense of being right in the heart of a city as by curving the sides of the buildings out the impression is you’re standing right at their base looking up!

I used that technique in this little story map of going from Brisbane to Byron. 😉


Putting the pictogram principals illustrated above into practice –

Below is a portion of a story-map from central Australia showing a desert landscape – I added the notation about the ‘wind whistles through the desert oaks’ as anyone who’s heard that sound whistling through their spiny branches would close their eyes and sigh remembering the wondrous feeling of being out in the desert, miles from anywhere 🙂

Pictogram symbols to represent a desert landscape


Pictogram Symbols to Represent Vegetation on Your Story-Map

Symbols to convey vegetation on a story-map

The pictogram I use for trees is the type we all used to draw as kids –

A fluffy cloud like canopy on a stalk.

Intersperse them with spiky stick trees if it’s a woodland that also has some coniferous pines.

Adding a few vertical lines at the base of the tree turns the ground into a grassy meadow –

Add some horizontal dots if it’s stoney and gravelly.

It’s sometime quite surprising how evocative a few squiggles can be to convey scrubby vegetation. Particularly when you don’t really know or remember exactly how it goes… other than it being scrubby and scribbley!


The trick to creating symbols that work visually is to observe and notate the definitive characteristic of the object, or in this case the vegetation you wish to represent –

For example – Pandanus tree leaves grow upwards and then flop over into a fold so their profile is quite spiky.
That would be their defining feature –
By focusing the illustration on that feature means the symbol becomes unmistakable.

Symbolically representing vegetation in a travel journal story-map


Modes of Transportation Pictogram Symbols

Transportation symbols for use on a story-map

No matter what make or model of car I travel in I always use this little symbolic rendition to mean I went by road.

Elongate it and it’s a station wagon/estate

For a 4WD – add a roof rack and a bull bar as these (to me) are a 4WD’s definitive features.

Bus or coach – For some reason those old yellow American school buses always come to mind.
What type comes to mind when you think of a bus?
That’s the sort you should be pictogramming!

When it comes to canoeing – What one feature screams kayaking?
To me it’s paddles –
So by exaggerating that feature (over the otherwise nondescript rectangular/oval I’ve plonked underneath it) will totally tell the story of what we did.


Pictogram Symbols

Now you know pictogram symbols are everywhere keep your eyes open for other simple ways of portraying modes of transportation you may literally see in the street ~

You may now be surprised how often you notice and see pictogram symbols in your everyday world!

Below, are two little sections from a story-map I created –
On the left was us whooshing up the Stuart Highway in the Northern Territory of Australia (notice the speed lines coming off the top of the back of the station-wagon roof – longer at the top, shorter at the bottom).
Huge road trains with two and three trailers rolling along behind the cab would come hurtling down towards us –
The image below right is my impression of this apparition – There never felt as though there was the time to count the trailers as they flashed past so I simply left the back of the truck fading off into the distance –

You don’t have to draw things exactly as they are to convey what you want to say!

Pictograms for cars and trucks


Sustenance – Food and Drink Symbols

Food and Drink Symbols for Story-Maps

Remember – the trick to creating a recognizable and believable symbol is to notice the detail –

Show the shape of the glass and you’ll be telling the tale of not just that you had a drink, but that you had a cocktail, or a beer, or a glass of wine – even down to whether it was red or white.

Adding sparkles in the form of dotted lines above a tall glass insinuates bubbles from a beer, or wiggly lines infers steam rising off a hot cup of tea or coffee.

I haven’t talked of colour yet – but as can be seen from the plate at the bottom of my pictogram sheet, adding a little brown, yellow and green turns undistinguishable shapes into a pie with chips and peas!

Food symbols
My little symbolic gesture of coffee and cake, which is an excerpt from a story map when we were at Uluru brings back the memory of the moment far more strongly than the photos I insisted upon taking before devouring it – because guess where those photos are?
Yes, they’re still languishing in the dark of an SD card 🙁


Stick Figures to Convey People on your Story-Map

Pictograms are extensively used each year at the Olympic games since at such a multi-lingual event it’s critical that everyone can understand and interpret what events are being held where –
And they’re a great example of just what can be conveyed by a simple stick man!

Pictorams are symbols that can be understood no matter what language you spek

Stickmen for illustrating story-maps


While my stickmen aren’t quite as stylish as the Munich 1972 Olympic Games pictograms above, by adding a little expression of some long curly locks or an accoutrement, such as a hat, can make stick figures quite personable!

To create some stick figure movement- Putting arms up-stretched can convey triumph.

Curving the back like a Lowry figure can insinuate a person is feeling a bit down.

Bend a few limbs and you have your person running

Or if you want a bit more body, start off by drawing a carrot – then add the arms, legs and a blob for the head.

This next little section of story-map is from a camping trip –

Stick figures with personality

It illustrates a few of the points I’ve been talking about here – Such as:
Adding a mop of curly hair to differentiate me from my husband, who you’ll notice I scribbled a little black beard on –
By putting flute shaped glasses at the end of our arms (look, no hands!), with the addition of a few dots above for sparkles clarifies the celebrational drink –
The tent is another example of accommodation – The guide ropes and the pegs being exaggerated as their differentiating feature – Plus a few dots on the ground makes you visualize some good camping dirt.

Summary of Pictogram Symbols

I’ll finish with the story-map below where I used a number of symbols to convey our sunset dinner cruise up Nitmiluk Gorge (having driven up from Mataranka earlier in the day)

Story Map Symbols

On the boat that took us up the gorge, the main feature I was aware of were the big open windows so I wanted my symbol to highlight that aspect, so I drew the boat side on (also of course, that seemed the easiest!) and I then put stick men heads in each window with relaxed, laid back, curved bodies.
I particularly wanted to savour the menu so drew a little symbol for each course.
Note: They are not artistic renditions – They are very simplistic pictorial symbols that will jog my memory when I see them and bring the whole experience back to life.

Did you realize how much we rely on pictograms
for even simple tasks like finding the loo?
Or getting to the airport?
Or even attending the right sport at the Olympic Games?

Do leave a comment below and tell me –


We’ve now covered:

In the next post we’ll pull all these elements – lines, arrows and symbols – together and talk about Layout –
Where exactly do you start on the page?
The Laid Back Travel Journal Layout 🙂

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Pop your email in the box below and I’ll give you a cooeee when it’s published


26 thoughts on “Do You Realize How Often You Already Use Pictogram Symbols?

  1. Your posts are inspiring me to make my own story maps. And now that you’ve given me some tools to actually draw (I’m decidedly non-artistic with no creative bones in my body!) I’m actually excited to try your ideas! Thanks and I can see many fun hours ahead with this new hobby…

    • If you held a pencil in kindergarten, you have the skills required for a story map Anita!
      I’m pulling the lines, arrows and now symbols together in the next post to look at Layout – Hope you’ll come along for the ride 🙂

  2. You know what I love about your work/lessons? I can actually draw them. I am NOT an artist and I cannot draw, but your jottings are so much fun and fairly simple. For example, the modes of transportation are totally drawings that I could take on and have fun with. When I look at the completed picture it seems so well-thought out and focused, but as you break it down step-by-step, it becomes do-able! Thanks for another great lesson!

    • You’ve nailed it Patti ~ Keeping the symbols simple is the key!
      We’re looking at communication – Not an artwork!
      You mention the complete picture – I’m covering layouts in the next post 🙂

    • They’re a wonderful way to remember your travels as they’re so much more fun to flick through than pages of alphanumeric symbols –
      And because they’re done at the time, they’re ready to go for reminiscing as soon as you’re home 🙂

  3. Now that I’m a Zentangler wannabe and travel with a sketch pad, you have inspired me to try “journey jottings” pictograms on our next trip — to Munich, Vienna and Budapest. That is supposed to be followed by a trip to South Africa (and a safari) in October which I imagine will scream out for drawing journaling. As someone who has been traveling for over 50 years (I am THAT old), I realize that international pictograms have become so much more omnipresent and important as the world has become a smaller place. I never realized how much an international event like the Olympics depends on pictograms and they are really splendid at conveying the sport being portrayed.

    • By selecting the one element that defines each sport, and focusing on that one element to convey, ensures each pictogram perfectly portrays its essence –
      Its a bit like in business, they say to stay on track (so you don’t get distracted by all the busy fluff stuff) you need to spend at least some time each day working on the one thing that defines your business and without which it would not exist.
      That is the secret to effective pictorial symbols – Portraying defining features!

      I’m green about the travelling you have coming up later in the year! 🙂

  4. I just love the way you view the world. I think your maps would make great personal art for people. A journey of their life… complete with memorable stops a long the way.

    • As the years fly past I agree summarizing life’s events on a single sheet is a great way to keep tabs of your highlights –
      I’ve kept a Year at a Glance for the last few years, where I notate just one highlight at the end of each month in the surrounds of a Journal Map – (Conveniently there are 11 boxes, which allows for one Nah month each year!)
      The central map can be seen as synonymous of your life’s journey rather than be a true representation of where you’ve actually been! 🙂

  5. I just love the idea and your fabulous explanations… I so love visuals and images something I am going to try… thank you, thank you cheers Di

  6. What a great post – as an adult trainer in the leadership field, talking with stories in a class brings concepts alive. What I loved about your art is just how simple and accessible you made it. I am going to give this a go in my flip-charting and white-boarding going forward to use it to enhance my training and add to my story collection. Lovely work Linda!
    Kerry Anne Cassidy recently posted..How to Value Yourself at WorkMy Profile

    • That’s great to hear Kerry Anne 🙂
      It is true not everyone takes things in just aurally – Many of us need visuals or even kinaesthetic interactions to comprehend new concepts –
      One of my favourite quotes on Communication is by George Bernard Shaw who said:
      The single biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has been achieved.

  7. I LOVE this post. Being school holidays it’s a terrific and achievable way for kids to record their experiences, especially on those long drives 🙂

    • Encouraging your kids to create a quick story map, even on just a few of the days throughout the holidays will bring such big grins to their faces in years to come when they revisit them –
      I’m really happy you dropped by to get the inspiration Marina 🙂

  8. My birthday is next week and I’m adding colored pencils and a drawing pad to my list 😉 I’m always doodling and there has always been something soothing about drawing to me. Perhaps I will try this in Europe this month. If not then, I’m definitely convinced that this is a good activity for me!

    • If you’re always doodling, you’ll love story-mapping!
      Doodling and drawing are very meditative as your chattering language side of the brain is forced to quieten down –
      If you’re off to Europe this month it would be a perfect opportunity to try this type of journalling out –
      It was where I started story mapping – Here’s a post I wrote showing some pages:
      Linda’s Story-Map Journal – Travel Journal Interviews

  9. So many great tips Linda-i’m leaving tomorrow for a trip to the west coast and have my pencils and markers along with my trusty moleskin packed and plan on posting about how you have inspired me to get back to it! I figure if I comment about it here, there will be more pressure{in a good way{ to follow through. Thanks!
    Alison abbott recently posted..Mother Nature’s FireworksMy Profile

    • I can’t wait to see that Alison!
      And I agree – sometimes one needs the nudge of putting it out into the universe for all to see to ensure there’s a little bit of accountability!

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