Monthly Archives: November 2020

Milton Glaser and logograms

When a symbol works—when everybody sees it and immediately knows what the writer is saying—it really works.

Back in the mid-1970s, there was a hugely influential graphic designer named Milton Glaser. In New York City—and everywhere—every young graphic designer knew about Milton Glaser and the mighty crew at Push Pin Studios. He was asked by the State of New York to help out with an advertising campaign to promote tourism. They wanted people to come visit the state and spend money. The slogan was to be: ‘I Love New York.’ They would turn the slogan into a musical jingle for radio & tv ads. It would appear on all print promotion.

While thinking about the project in the back of a taxi cab, Milton Glaser grabbed a crayon and a scrap of paper and turned the slogan ‘I Love New York’ into a logogram: *

which became this:

Gajillions of T-shirts/buttons/coffeemugs/ballcaps later, everybody knows that logogram. The design is trademarked, but not by Milton Glaser. He was generous with his talent and did the work pro bono—for free. Pro bono is Latin for ‘why people in the graphic design business are often short of cash.’ Try to negotiate for a percentage of sales, you young designers, even if you’re doing a favor.

You can see how logograms became part of the system of hieroglyphics in ancient Egypt. A scribe might hit upon a widely-recognized symbol and use it to replace a word or words. If it worked, it became part of their writing system.

*I admit: only the ‘heart’ part of this is a true logogram, standing for the word ‘love.’ And, yes, hearts have been part of romantic love imagery and Valentine’s Day cards for years and years. But before Glaser’s design, nobody had used a heart symbol that way—to replace a word. Today it’s part of our visual language. How about that for influence on a culture?

Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Reading & Writing.


Aleph (AH-leff)

Sometimes a symbol stood for a sound. The hieroglyph that looks like an ox’s head was called ‘Aleph’ (AH-leff). Imagine you’re an ancient Egyptian scribe. If you drew (Aleph) and added ‘my heart in San Francisco’ readers would get the meaning without you having to draw all the symbols for ‘I left’—like a picture of a guy walking away or a picture of something being left behind.

Using the aleph symbol that way is a ‘rebus.’ If you’ve ever been in a doctor’s waiting room with kids’ magazines on the coffee table, you’ve probably seen a rebus in them. Rebus symbols are different from the rest of hieroglyphics because rebus symbols represent a sound. Not only that, but the sound can have nothing to do with what the symbol originally represented. The reader sees an ox head and hears the sound ‘aleph’ but doesn’t think about cows or draft animals or plowing.

This is kind of a big deal. Rebuses meant that ordinary shmoes might understand hieroglyphics, not just the scribes. Of course, the scribes didn’t want ordinary shmoes reading hieroglyphics because then the scribes would be out of a job. So they kept writing with the complicated system of pictograms, ideograms and logograms. Only the scribes could write ‘em; only the scribes could read ‘em.

Here’s Mr Tony Bennett:
Okay, some of these are true rebuses, some aren’t. If you have to spell out the word ‘ha’ in a dialogue balloon, why show a girl laughing? Same with a picture of a cat ‘-T’ to get ‘CA.’ If we already know how to spell, we don’t need the rebus.

Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Reading & Writing.



Like Sumerian cuneiform, Egyptian hieroglyphics is a writing system which used pictograms (symbols that stand for things) ideograms (symbols that stand for ideas).

Remember with pictograms, a picture of the sun stands for the sun, and a picture of a foot stands for a foot. An ideogram could be a picture of a sun that stands for the idea of one day. Or a picture of a foot that stands for the idea of distance. Ideograms ask you to see a picture of one thing and figure out that it means something else—something you can’t draw a picture of.

Then there are logograms—symbols that stand for a word or even a phrase. Maybe logograms started out as pictograms but the scribes used them to save time. We use logograms all the time when we send text messages, because they’re fast, easy and save space. Like ‘&’ is a logogram for ‘and.’ ‘$’ is a logogram for ‘dollars.’ ‘>’ is a logogram for ‘more than.’ Emojis are logograms that express a feeling faster than writing those stumbling words that told you what my heart meant.

UPDATE: As I reread this post, I realize I’m wrong here. Emojis are ideograms, not logograms. Unless they stand in for specific words, they’re not logograms. A heart emoji as a response to a text is an ideogram: it means you love what you just read. ‘I(heart)NY’ is a logogram for ‘I love New York.’ I need to rewrite and redraw this one.

Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Reading & Writing.


Okay, we got the paper, we got the pens and brushes—now we need the medium: ink.

Medium (singular), media (plural) are Latin words.

Medium is the word we artists use when we talk about the substance used to make marks—ink, paint, crayon, pencil, pastel, chalk. Every medium needs 2 parts: pigment and binder. The pigment is the color. You get pigment from vegetable, animal, or mineral sources. The binder is what holds the pigment together and makes it stick to a surface like paper. Liquid medium needs a third part: solvent.

To get black pigment, the Egyptians used the same stuff they did in pre-historic times: burned bones. When bones burn they turn black and brittle. The scribes ground them into a powder. You can use charcoal from wood, too.

This is a stone mortar and pestle—the tools you use to grind something into a powder.

To hold the powder together, they used the sap from the acacia tree. It’s called Gum Arabic and is still used in watercolor today. Gum Arabic is water-soluble. The Egyptian scribes would dry out the gum, grind it into a powder, mix it with burnt-bone powder and add water. They might add very little water to make a thick paste which they could form into a cake.

The round shapes at the top of this scribe’s kit are ink-cakes.

After the cake dried, a scribe could carry it around with him and reactivate the ink by adding a bit of water with his brush. Water is the solvent. If you’ve painted with a box of pan watercolors you understand what I mean. The scribe wrote on the papyrus with brush or pen and when the ink dried the pigment stayed there for thousands of years.

A set of pan watercolors

When they’re exposed to water and air, metals oxidize or corrode. As they do, they produce a colored outer layer. The Egyptians got red pigment by scraping the rust from iron. They got green or blue by scraping the corrosion off of copper.
The egyptologist in this article says ‘infers’ but he means ‘implies:’
This book is a must-read if you’re interested in color:

Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Reading & Writing.

Papyrus brushes

Not only can you make paper and pens from the papyrus reed, you can make brushes, too! It’s like those Egyptians never needed to go to the art supply store. They just waded into the Nile and grabbed a reed.

As I understand it, you chew on the end of a thin reed until the pith is soft enough to be flexible and absorb ink. You can trim it with a pair of scissors or a sharp knife to get a point.

Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Reading & Writing.

Papyrus pens

The papyrus reed can also be made into pens and brushes. For a pen, you need a dried papyrus reed. It’s as hard as wood, and hollow. With a sharp knife you cut a concave section out of the end of the reed, leaving a flexible point. You trim the point to however wide you want your pen-stroke. Then you split the point so it can hold ink.

If you don’t happen to have a papyrus reed handy, for 3 or 4 bucks you can buy a Chinese bamboo calligraphy pen for the same result.

Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Reading & Writing.



How come Egyptian hieroglyphics are recognizable to us, but Sumerian cuneiform isn’t?

Two words: art supplies.

The Sumerian scribes used a stylus to make marks in soft clay. A stylus pokes indentations into clay, but not strokes. They were limited to wedge-shapes because if they’d tried to draw a curve there would be a build-up of clay on one side of the stroke, like when a snow plow clears a road.

The Egyptians wrote on paper—to be specific, papyrus (pah PIE roos). Papyrus is a reed that grows around the Nile River delta. They found that you can soak the pith (the insides) of the reeds until it becomes soft, then pound it flat. The flattened strips are woven into a sheet, pressed and left to dry. When the sheet’s dry you can write or draw on it.

You cut the skin off a papyrus reed with a knife, leaving the pith. The pith is cut into strips.

Soak the pith strips in water.

The strips are rolled flat.

The strips are woven into a sheet and left to dry under some heavy weight.

Ta-da! It’s a sheet of papyrus!

(I was right—the papyrus reed is triangular in cross-section. I hadn’t lost my marbles after all.)

Here are two scribes, one writes in cuneiform and one writes in hieroglyphics.

Watch some experts make papyrus:

Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Reading & Writing.

Writing of the gods

Hieroglyphics are similar to cuneiform in one way: they’re a combination of pictograms and ideograms. Some symbols stand for entire syllables or words—logograms. Hieroglyphics are different from cuneiform in one big way: the images are recognizable to our modern eyes. Cuneiform is a bunch of wedge-shapes arranged in different configurations to make symbols. But with hieroglyphics, when you look at a symbol that represents an owl or a snake or a hand, you can tell right away what they’re supposed to be. There’s a good reason for that.

Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Reading & Writing.

The first pharaoh

Here’s Menes wearing the crown of Lower Egypt.

Here’s Menes wearing the crown of Upper Egypt.

Here’s Menes wearing the crown of a united Egypt.

Egypt was two kingdoms: the Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt. Sometime around 3100 bc, a ruler named Menes united the Egyptians into a single kingdom. Let’s face it, there was a bit of violence involved to achieve this unity. All Egyptians were polytheistic—they worshiped a bunch of gods. Menes declared himself the living incarnation of the god Horus. That was a clever way to give his kingship the stamp of authority. Menes promoted his divinity by publishing inscriptions that could be read throughout the new kingdom. The writing system used was ‘divine words’—hieroglyphics.

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Down by the river

The Egyptians were able to farm the land next to the Nile because it flooded regularly every year. When the water receded, it left behind a sludge—silt—of dead fish and plants which turn into nutrients. Crops love those yummy nutrients. The Egyptians figured out how to irrigate—they built levees and dams and canals to direct water from the Nile into their farm fields. Irrigation made farming even easier. Farming could be done by fewer people while still producing enough food to feed everybody. People who weren’t farmers could do other jobs which paid money or produced goods so they could buy or barter for food. This is how an economy begins.

Did I say growing food is easy? It’s pretty back-breaking for the poor slobs who do the work. I don’t know what their headwear is here, or why it’s brimless. A gourd shell, maybe? The Egyptian sun must have been unrelenting.

Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Reading & Writing.