Vital Symbols

MFA Thesis
Advisor: Monica Schlaug

Pictograms, Vital Symbol Brand Research Process Book, Applications

Thesis Statement
Graphic design creates visual language systems that make information more universally accessible. The main form of communication within healthcare has been verbal or written text. This creates an obstacle for people who have language barriers or difficulty in verbal communication to manage their care. I propose a symbol system for symptoms and side effects because icons help us communicate medical information without language barriers.

Starting Point

It started with one book called Blue Dreams(link). In this book, the author emphasizes the numerous side effects that antidepressants have caused her. This made me wonder how well do we understand the side effects of medicines.  And a recent survey found that 4 out of 5 people on anti-depressant drugs are unaware of their side effects (link).

Problems of Current System
1.  Side effects information is not ‘customer-friendly’ (link)
2. Communication in the medical field has been verbal or written, which can be an obstacle for people with verbal limitations
3. This leads language barrier issues (link)

Universal Symbol System(link) ︎︎︎ Vital Symbols


Design Development
To begin with, I researched current existing icons(link). I learned a lot of them are lacking a sense of unity and are sometimes cartoonish. So I wanted to direction that can solve this issue. Since most of the icons are realistic and organic drawings, I wondered if geometric shapes could work instead, so I conducted the experiment (zine︎︎︎). At the same time, I tried the first symbol draft that was inspired by Blisssymbolics(link) for a more abstract/geometric version. After the experiment, I learned that it might be difficult for people to perceive the meanings right away. So I took the approach that's more organic and realistic drawing and went through different versions, I was mainly focusing on creating a system that makes the visual elements more unified and how this could be best utilized in digital devices.

Final Version Symbol System

Each symbol consists of the body part and the side effect that is related to it. They are based on a 12 by 12 grid system. The logic in the system involves component placing and a sense of unity by using the same elements repetitively.

(symbol combination examples)


I referenced OSHA-sanctioned safety colors for the color system. OSHA stands for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. It is a federal agency in the United States responsible for setting and enforcing safety and health standards in the workplace to protect workers from job-related injuries, illnesses, and fatalities. 

Vital Symbols can be used in various ways. I have outlined several situations where vital symbols can be useful for both the general public and specific situations in which patients have verbal communication constraints. 

Vital Symbol Application Design System

Vital Symbols can be used for two purposes (usage and side effect) so I came up with a system that can distinguish them by using colors. For example, if the symbol indicates usage, then there’s no background color and the icons will be shown with their brand color and if the symbol indicates side effects, icons will have a colored background which will be either yellow(mild side effect) or red(several side effect).

Package (prescription medicine)
For the vertical bottle-shaped drug containers symbols could be placed in a vertical label format because, unlike the box-type package, there’s a big limitation for using space. For medicine bottles, incorporating Vital Symbols can be achieved with flag labels. The number of symbols that are presented should be limited to a maximum of five or six for text size consideration. Space can be more effectively utilized with double-sided flag labels for both symptoms (usage) and side effects (warning). In any case, the text should always be presented with icons to help the audience understand.

Package (Over The Counter Medicine)

Future AI package
In the future, augmented reality will be widely used(link), and there is no question that it will play an essential role in medical information. Therefore, I envision a future scenario where Vital Symbols is used in conjunction with the use of packages with AR technology. Users only need to scan the package, and symbols are shown as augmented images that help patients to learn important information. This will help patients gain important information quickly and easily.

Mobile App (Doctor’s Appointment)
Vital Symbols serves three main functions in the mobile app: 1. informing the symptoms and side effects, 2. getting real-time user data for side effects, and 3. connecting to doctor’s appointments. In order to help users understand more intuitively, it is designed to minimize the use of text and perform image-oriented functions as much as possible. 

Currently, it is inconvenient to call and communicate verbally to make a doctor’s appointment, or to describe symptoms via text digitally. Vital Symbols can be useful in these situations. If the symptoms can be delivered quickly with a single selection on the phone, many patients can reduce the hassle of writing about the symptoms on a website or talking to hospital officials after a long wait.

AAC (Augmentative and Alternative Communication)
AAC is short for Augmentative and Alternative Communication which consists of communication devices, systems, strategies, and tools that replace or support natural speech (link). AAC is important because it gives patients the freedom to express themselves without relying on someone else. The patients use specific AAC devices for communication, and it helps users to communicate through a combination of words, sentences, and images.  With Vital Symbols, I imagine a situation where people can use symbols through tablets or phones to reduce the cost. Also once they learn about the symbols, patients wouldn’t need to learn how to use new devices or get used to new images.


Thesis Book (Full PDF  ︎︎︎)


Pictograms have had a significant impact on our daily lives as they are widely used in various fields and industries to convey information quickly and effectively. Pictograms are also useful in international communication as they can convey meaning without relying on language. The power of pictograms is stronger than we think and their importance will continuously increase in the upcoming digital-driven world. I hope my design can be a meaningful step in helping more people and creating an inclusive design.