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Health Literacy and Patient Education Guide

This guide includes information on health literacy, patient education, and health literacy resources for health professionals.

What is a Pictogram?

A pictogram is a graphic symbol that conveys an idea or concept through its pictorial resemblance to a physical object.

Pictograms can transcend language because they can communicate to speakers of many languages equally effectively, even if the languages and cultures are radically different. This is why road signs and similar pictographic materials are often applied as global standards and can be expected to be understood by nearly everyone.

Pictograms remain in common use today, serving as representational signs, instructions, or diagrams. A couple of examples of pictograms you likely recognize are below.

 Pictogram of throwing away trash.        The restroom pictogram.

Examples of Pharmaceutical Pictograms

USP (US Pharmacopeial Convention) Pictograms are standardized graphic images that help convey medication instructions, precautions, and/or warnings to patients and consumers. Pictograms are particularly helpful in passing on important information to patients with a lower level reading ability and patients for whom English is a second language. You may download these and other pictograms from the USP website

Person putting a pill in their mouth.           Person putting pill in mouth with three meals and before bed.


Medicine in a refrigerator.                      Person putting pill in mouth and then yawning.

The Risk/Benefit Assessment of Drugs-Analysis and Response (RAD-AR) Council of Japan created a batch of pictograms for use on pharmaceutical packaging. 

Pharmaceutical pictograms.


How to Use Pictograms in Practice: Storyboard Approach

Pictograms should be a "story" (i.e. a series of pictures) rather than one complex diagram that attempts to convey a small series of actions. The story needs to depict the following concepts:

  • Indication
  • Quantity
  • Dosage form
  • Route
  • Frequency
  • Additional information
  • Alcohol restriction
  • Food requirement (relationship to meals)
  • Child protection

And each of these concepts needs to be broken down into separate elements.

The elements fall into two broad categories;

  1. Those have are generic and will be understood by people of any culture or background (for example: two tablets).
  2. Those that require a culturally specific content in order to be understood (for example: the type of food that is eaten).

A storyboard pictogram should be printed on letter size paper in either portrait or landscape orientation, depending on how the culture reads. 


A "storyboard" showing how to take a medication.