Making sense of Mandarin

The Mandagram research project was initially inspired by a previous research project looking at Japanese, Phonetikana. We were asked by the British Embassy team in Beijing in 2010 to investigate if anything similar could be done to explain Mandarin.

We’ve been fascinated for some time by what constitutes viable bilingual communication and looking harder at what can be done to make languages understandable. In the case of Mandarin, we quickly realised the phonic approach of Phonetikana wouldn’t work – but our research revealaed that at least 800 characters still had links back to the imagery that inspired the form of the final characters.

In some cases, we were just eploring how the characters could return to something similar to the ideograms that the Mandarin originally developed from - so the provenance of the characters for ‘mountain' and ‘umbrella’ are pretty easy to see.

Whilst some characters such as  ‘monkey’ have become quite abstracted from their original meaning, or are a combination of multiple characters.

We extrapolated the idea out across various character sets, designed booklets and an exhibition in China. And of course chose a name. Since the idea is a combination of Mandarin and pictograms, we called them Mandagrams.


As with Phonetikana, our Mandagram idea has been widely shared, and even, er, emulated by a spookily similar Chinese learning system which came out two years later. You know what they say about imitation and flattery…

© johnson banks design limited 2010

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