Tag Archives: symbols

Ready made symbols sets – advantages and disadvantages


Thanks to Helen Beltran for this thought provoking blog.

I am an Accredited Talking Mats Trainer and have just finished a great week of training in my local area, Inverclyde, Scotland. This was the first time I had given out symbol sets to everyone who completed the training. What difference did it make?

Everyone was able to see the symbol sets during the training and was really positive about the images and the design. I was concerned at the time that this would stop them really engaging with the process and individualising their mat. I was so pleased when they came back with videos that showed that they had selected the most appropriate options for their communication partner, they had removed those that were too abstract, they had thought about using photos, they had added symbols they had produced themselves. They had made the resources their own!

We talked about this as a group and all the participants felt that the symbol sets were going to allow them to get going with Talking Mats. They would then develop their bank of symbols, by making their own and buying further packs. Some participants told us that they felt having the symbol sets was allowing them to bring supportive colleagues on board who had not yet done the training and was combatting the negative attitudes of the vocal few who had the ‘not more work for us to do’ attitude!

They left with their symbol sets – full of ideas, not just about Talking Mats but about offering choice, hearing the individual’s voice, reducing vulnerability, relationship building and empowerment.

It has often struck me that some people are very much at home making picture resources and making their communication more visual, while others find it a real challenge. Is it reasonable for us to expect everyone to produce their own resources from scratch? Is the barrier to the use of visual communication the making of the resources, rather than the motivation to use them? On the other hand, is the making of the resources the only way to make sure that the supports meet the individual’s needs? What about the costs involved in buying in? Do those who are embracing visual communication need help with resources in order to spread good practice?

Food for thought?


How we developed the Talking Mats communication symbols


We are delighted with the response to our new Talking Mats symbols. They created a real buzz at the ISAAC (International Society  of Augmentative and Alternative Communication) Conference in Lisbon last week.” Its so good to see something fresh and engaging” , “These are awesome”

Over the past few years we have been looking at symbols in a new way and have used our specialist skills from clinical practice, research and language structure to underpin their development. These skills, in partnership with a leading comic artist, www.adammurphy.com , have enabled us to design our symbols, making sure that they are:

  • Unique
  • Attractive and fun
  • Simple but represent concepts clearly
  • Distinguish between concrete and abstract concepts
  • Show full body, not stick figures
  • Acceptable in terms of  age and ethnicity
  • Balanced between male and female
  • Provide additional visual clues within topics to support understanding

Talking Mats does not require people to select and ‘name’ symbols – the important feature is that the symbols act as a support to hang meaning on. In this way people can understand and use the symbols to express their views .

To determine the size and colour of the symbols, we have used a pragmatic approach as follows:

A search of the literature showed that very little empirical research has been written about optimal symbol size and colour for different client groups. However several leading graphic and cartoon designers use yellow as this is easily recognisable, attractive and ethnically neutral e.g. Simpsons, Lego

  • Our artist advised us that cool colours such as blue recede into the background visually whereas warm colours such as yellow stand out more
  • We believe it is important to include text as this provides additional input for many people e.g. many people with dementia can read.
  • From discussion with colleagues and reading learning disability literature we decided that  Arial, san serif point 14 would be the clearest font
  • We experimented with various sizes, using very large symbols on one dementia project. However we found that very large symbols are too distracting and limit the number of symbols that can be used on a mat. Following piloting with older people in care homes we determined that the optimal size for using with Talking Mats is 5.5 square cm.
  • We ran focus group discussions with speech and language therapists, people with learning disability, people with aphasia and people with dementia. The focus groups presented participants with symbols of different styles, size and colours. The resulting responses plus our literature search led us to the current symbols in terms of design, size and colour.
  • We then piloted the symbols in several settings including a day centre with adults with complex physical and cognitive disabilities, a care home with people with dementia and a secondary school with children with additional support needs. In all of these setting almost all participants were able to see, recognise and use the symbols appropriately.
  • We made a conscious decision not use photos because photos often have too much detail on the one hand or conversely can be too specific… but that’s a topic for another blog!

We are constantly extending the range of symbols and are currently working on a resource for helping people to consider their Eating and Drinking.  We are also working on providing additional visual clues within topics to help people understand concept more easily e.g. emotions are represented within a cloud border. e.g this poor guy is feeling guiltyguilty


We are really excited that our new symbols are now being used by 2 organisations outside the field of disability to help students and graduates reflect on their skills,strengths and weaknesses.

 For further information click here