The acronyms’ post, got me thinking about the role and effectiveness of the different icons and symbols that are used in sustainability reports.
 They all convey information visually and as such have the potential of communicating information unconstrained by verbal language barriers. Well designed icons can work as way-finding tools within a document or a complex schematic drawing.
 A common use of icons in a report is to serve as markers to identify certain chapters or sections, for example the helical compact fluorescent lightbulb (CFL) representing ‘energy saving’ or the wind turbine (as seen below) representing ‘renewables’.

wind turbine icons
Icons like these are an excellent tool to quickly place the reader into context. They work well when defining large categories but what happens when you need to describe a specific technology or a process that consists of several steps or elements? How to draw, for example, an icon for a ground source heat pump or rainwater irrigation system?

Ottl Aicher, the designer of the influential 1972 Olympic games pictograms wrote: “A symbol is like a term, an appeal, and not like a description. It is more compact, a conclusion without flourish and coincidence.” This is exactly what icons like the CFL bulb do, they become a statement.


 But a process needs a description and creating a successful iconic image that would represent a process in a recognisable and graphically economic form is a challenge. The best solution, I believe, is actually found in Aicher’s later work.

In 1979 he embarked on a set of drawings for a poster series commissioned by the tourism authority of Isny, a small German town in Bavaria. These ‘ideographic drawings’ (depicting people, animals, plants, buildings, recreational scenes and the landscape in general) created ‘reportage’ on the town*. The expressive quality of these graphics, is spectacular. By just giving them a glance they can convey their main message, but when look at closer, the original message becomes a whole story, which makes them truly fascinating.

Here we have forests, but not any forest we can make out the types of trees by the texture of the tree trunks, in the bottom left corner we can see tall pine trees, casting their shadows under the afternoon sun (since the light is falling down the west side), We can hear the sound of the water from the stream below the wooden bridge in the center image, thanks to those delightful bubbles of foam. And we can also hear the clacking sounds of the heavy beer glasses, so called Maßkrüge, as they connect with each other in the busy beer-garden (center top). I could go on talking about these images but I’ll invite you to look at them yourself.

Image credits:
1. Wind icon images, from left to right:
– Wind icon. Will County Green.
– wind turbine icon. GL Stock images.
– Wind Energy Power Symbol. Change agent.
– Vector wind turbine icons. Colourbox.
– Energy icon wind. The Whitehouse.
2. CFL icon: The Noun Project from The Noun Project collection
3. Isny pictograms: Otl Aicher

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