Tag Archives: writing

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?


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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.

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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.


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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:

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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.


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Writing gets complicated

The Sumerians used a stylus to make symbols in soft clay. The symbols represented things they wanted to count, like stuff they were buying or selling. Think about sheaves of barley; poultry or livestock; pots of olive oil; baskets of dried fish. It was an accounting system for business. There were symbols for counting—numbers—and symbols to represent things—pictograms.

Over a long period of time, though, these symbols developed into a writing system that could record things people say. New meanings were introduced. Sometimes a symbol represented an idea—that’s called an ideogram. For instance, a symbol that looks like the sun may represent the sun (pictogram), or maybe a day or noon or the passage of time (ideogram). A foot symbol might mean a foot (pictogram), or walking or running or a distance (ideogram).

This writing system became pretty complicated. There were thousands of these symbols and more than one meaning for a lot of them. The ordinary shmoes who had used symbols to count their goods could no longer read or write in this system. You had to be trained to do it. You had to be a scribe.


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Stylin’ with the stylus

You hold it like a pencil.

The Sumerians didn’t have pencils to write with. Instead, they took a dry reed, stiff as a stick, and cut the end off at a 90° angle. Using a knife or by sanding it, they made the end of the reed rectangular. The corners needed to be sharp! They used the corners and the edges of the stylus to press triangles and lines into a soft clay tablet. This style of writing is called cuneiform (koo-NAY-i-form), from Latin words that mean triangle (cune-) and shape (form). The writing tool is called a stylus (STY-loos), plural styli (STY-lee).


By the way, up until I researched this post I thought that the reed’s cross-section was triangular. Can you see how red my face is? Research, gang. You’re never too old to learn!

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

Chicken scratchings

Here’s something else clay is good for: writing stuff down.

I’m just guessing here. How would you write a number before there were numbers?

Before it’s fired, clay is soft enough to make marks in. A Sumerian writer would spread out a blob of clay to make a flat tablet. A chicken farmer who wanted to count his chickens could draw little pictures of them on a clay tablet, instead of carrying around clay chicken-tokens. These drawings would have been very simple—maybe a dot and 2 lines for legs? A symbol of a chicken represented a real chicken. A symbol that represents a person, place or thing is called a pictogram.

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

Back in caveman days

Many hairy returns

Way, way back—I mean 2.5 million years ago—nobody read anything, because nobody wrote anything down. If you wanted to say ‘happy birthday’ to your uncle who lived in the next county, you’d have to walk there and tell him yourself. There weren’t any birthday cards, or paper, or pencils—and no alphabet, so you couldn’t even write ‘many happy returns’ (whatever that means).

On the other hand, one thing you have to say about us human beings is: we like stories. Not only that, we like stories with pictures. So prehistoric human beings did the best they could with the resources at hand. They painted gorgeous, inspiring hunting scenes on the inside of caves where they lived. For paint, they used ash, chalk, colored minerals, even blood. These scenes tell the story of triumphant hunters, or maybe they hoped their mural would convince their gods to grant them a successful hunt.


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

The Western Civ User’s Guide to Reading & Writing

Okay, gang, here we go! I’m starting up another Western Civ User’s Guide. This time around we’re looking at reading and writing. If you’re a loyal follower, you know we’re all about the history of ideas here at Western Civ User’s Guide world headquarters. In this book I want to explore 2 themes. One, how an ancient invention—the alphabet—was so essential that it’s endured down to our own time. Two, that the history of Western Civ can be seen as a series of culture-changing transfers of power from privileged elites (usually played in the movies by the late Alan Rickman) to the broader population (regular shmoes). For example, the alphabet and later moveable type brought literacy to huge amounts of people; the printing press and later the internet increased the distribution of information.

In case anyone’s fuzzy about what exactly Western Civilization is, here are links to a couple of brilliant explanations:


As usual, there will be lousy gags and badly-drawn cartoons squeezed in between bits of actual history. This is interactive—chime in if you have information to share. I heartily thank you weirdos for following. See you next post!