A Pictogram Language Designed For The Displaced

Designers and asylum seekers collaborated on the pictograms, which help ease communication in refugee camps.

Last October, when refugees were arriving in droves in European cities from places like Syria and Romania, many citizens lent their time and resources fueling the camps. “Civil society started to act,” says Erwin Bauer, founder of the Vienna-based design studio buero bauer. “We as designers are part of civil society so we had to act, too.”


So Bauer approached the Red Cross–the NGO that runs the Wien Mitte refugee camp, in Vienna–to see where they might need the help of designers. At the time, the students who had been volunteering as camp translators that summer had gone back to university, and the remaining visual communication system amounted to some make-shift signs taped to the walls. It was chaotic: Signs made by refugees informed others not to drink the water, even though in Vienna the tap water is potable. Without a common language between all of the refugees, there was no comprehensive understanding of what the written signs were saying.

The easiest solution, Bauer and his team realized, was to design a set of icons that could be easily understood across cultural lines: a pictogram language.

Instead of producing a single permanent system, they started with the most necessary icons–medical services, toilets, food–and employed them immediately, asking for feedback from translators and refugees that allowed them to iterate new versions. What resulted was a flexible and fluid system created out of a collaboration between translators, refugees, and designers.

Like all pictograms, the success of their so-called First Aid kit relies on its simplicity and accessibility across culture lines. Bauer’s pictogram system differentiates itself with an emphasis on respect and symbology that reflects both the cultures of those seeking asylum and those acting as host. One of the most striking examples of that is the titular first aid sign, which took precedent when Bauer and his team started designing the system. The icon depicts both a Red Cross, the typical Western symbol for first aid, and a half moon, the common sign in Arab countries. In a gesture of goodwill and respect, the designers put the Arabic symbol in the position that they considered “first,” with the moon was on the left and the cross on the right–until a translator pointed out that Arabic is read from right to left. So the designers reversed them and landed on a solution that in some ways is even more poetic: no matter which way the sign is read–right to left or left to right–both cultures are being shown respect from its own perspective.

The logic, elegance, and simplicity of the first aid sign informed the rest of the pictogram suite. For example, the icon for “woman”–used for restrooms or to depict pregnancy–has either longer hair than the typical female icon or is wearing a headscarf, depending on the viewer’s perspective. “It’s a slight modification of a very well known sign, but what you pick up on relies on your cultural background,” he says. “What have I learned in the past? What have I seen? That will give my personal interpretation.”

The system is now available for download in a kit format from buero bauer’s website, but it’s still evolving through collaborations with other designers and organizations–the beauty of a flexible system. Recently, they worked with a typographer in Berlin who wanted to adapt the icon system for the refugee camps there. He digitized them and made them into a font for others to use. Another organization is creating a soon-to-be-released app for refugees called New Year, which aims to be handy for refugees once they find asylum, guiding them on things like where to find affordable food and housing, schools and other refugees that were recently placed. Bauer is designing the user interface, and will incorporate the icons there, as well. Though the original work was pro bono, these new collaborations work like licensing agreements, allowing them to generate a small profit which they plan on putting toward expanding the project even further afield.


Bauer says that he hopes the project will do as much to inspire designers to pitch in with the refugee crisis as it will to bring order to the camps. “Communication now works within different channels, different target groups, slightly different meanings,” he says. “Part of this project is to show designers themselves that they can do something.”

About the author

Meg Miller is an associate editor at Co.Design covering art, technology, and design.