There's a million examples of this, but the one that comes to mind is "smoke shop" with images of pipes in place of the "S"s, like this:

Smoke shop logo

Is there a word for this?

Edit, September 26, 2018 Thanks, @tmgr, for the detailed and informative response, but maybe I should clarify a bit. What I'm referring to doesn't have much in common with a rebus, wherein the names of the images are used to form the resulting word. (In my example above, that would be "pipe-moke pipe-hop")

I often see it in lazy or sometimes terrible graphic design. "Visual pun" comes close, but in many cases there doesn't seem to be any punning at all, or maybe they're just unfunny. In the worst cases, the word is rendered nearly incomprehensible or ambiguous.

More examples, all of which are fairly "punny". (I can't find any examples of the unfunny/downright-incomprehensible ones, sorry.)

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  • 3
    You might want to ask in Graphic Design to find out if there's industry jargon for it.
    – Barmar
    Sep 24, 2018 at 19:15
  • @Barmar That's an excellent idea. I'll do that and report back if I get an answer. Sep 26, 2018 at 10:32
  • @Barmar: inconclusive! The best answer I got was the unsatisfying "semantic reinforcement with replacement by an image" Sep 29, 2018 at 7:49
  • Looking there, it seems kind of conclusive that they don't have a word for this specific type of graphic.
    – Barmar
    Sep 29, 2018 at 17:05

3 Answers 3


It's a visual pun.

Visual pun is quite a broad graphic design term. Somewhat inevitably, Buzzfeed has a list of visual puns which is as good a way of understanding the term as anything else.

What's going on in your example - replacing characters of a logotype with a related image - is just one of many possible kinds of visual pun. There may well be a more precise term, but not one I'm aware of.

According to Wikipedia:

A visual pun is a pun involving an image or images (in addition to or instead of language), often based on a rebus.

The word rebus is worth some consideration itself; Oxford Living Dictionaries defines it as:

A puzzle in which words are represented by combinations of pictures and individual letters; for instance, apex might be represented by a picture of an ape followed by a letter X.

One example of a rebus follows:

Rebus: See you in the spring

While the underlying logic is somewhat different, there are clear visual parallels between rebuses and visual puns of the type in your example.

To return to visual puns, one of the examples the Wikipedia article referenced above gives is the emblem of the 148th Fighter Squadron, 162nd Fighter Wing, Arizona Air National Guard, USAF:

Round crest showing an angry mule kicking its back legs, bearing the motto "Kickin' Ass"

One of the more famous examples in North American corporate logo design, one with more complex punning, is shown below:

Hooters restaurant chain logo, with ambiguous owl eyes replacing the double-o in the logotype

(While I wouldn't claim there is anything terribly sophisticated going on here, the puns here do work on several levels; they are left as an exercise to the reader to fully explicate at his or her own leisure.)

The idea of visual puns is nothing new, of course. You could look for (and find) analogues in ideographic writing systems, like those of China and the greater Sinosphere, as well as in the hieroglyphs of ancient Egypt, not least in what linguists term the rebus principle:

the use of existing symbols, such as pictograms, purely for their sounds regardless of their meaning, to represent new words.

Canting arms are a more direct predecessor. Common in continental heraldry, canting arms use visual puns to convey the name of the arms-bearer - presumably as a practical measure in times of more limited literacy, or, at least, as an aide-mémoire for befuddled heralds, as well as being a source of some small amusement.

For example, the city of Berlin's coat of arms features a large black bear. This phonic association between bear and Berlin, which works in German as well as it does in English, has nothing to do with the actual etymology of the placename.

Patch showing coat of arms labelled 'Berlin' with a black bear on a white field

Again, the word rebus is rather closely associated with canting arms. A further definition of rebus is:

historical An ornamental device associated with a person to whose name it punningly alludes.

Wikipedia points out that a person of note might well have a rebus as a personal emblem, used perhaps to decorate buildings or as a seal, and entirely separate from their coat of arms.

The term canting also gives rise to ye olde punne, for which I assume no responsibility:

Heralds don't pun; they cant.

  • 2
    I think rebus should rank a little stronger in your answer.
    – AmI
    Sep 23, 2018 at 18:10
  • Please don't overstate -- phonetic rebuses aren't as common as the puns.
    – AmI
    Sep 23, 2018 at 18:40
  • 1
    I think there's a bit more to it than that. Wikipedia's examples look to me as ordinary puns (that is, based on a coincidence in sounds) that are illustrated visually, whereas the OP's example and the Hooters logo are both based on a coincidence in shape between one or more letters and something else. Sep 23, 2018 at 21:53
  • Most of the Buzzfeed examples are invisible to me, but among those I can see only the "sex tape" one seems to be powered by a coincidence in shape that involves writing. Sep 23, 2018 at 21:58
  • @HenningMakholm You're right, of course; visual pun isn't specific to OP's example in any way, and it's a very broad term, something I was at pains to stress. I had a look for any kind of subcategories. There isn't an established typology I could come across. It's very possible that there is a more specific term out there; I don't propose to invent one. Also, if you want more examples and can't look at Buzzfeed, you'll see some more in the Wikipedia article. This will confirm your suspicion of the breadth of the term visual pun. It is, nonetheless, applicable here.
    – tmgr
    Sep 23, 2018 at 22:00

From graphical design, typesetting, and signage manufacturing industries, OBJECT TYPOGRAPHY would, at least in part, describe your examples, along with Graphical Pun. So one might describe an "OBJECT TYPOGRAPHICAL PUN".

Verbicon is a similar concept, tangent to your reference and question. But your example would have to be a "Nounicon", if such a word existed. (Note to historians of future generations: Please site this as the first reference to "Nounicon" and extend appropriate credit. Thank you.)Object Typography Example

Graphical Pun Example


Given your edit noting "visual pun" doesn't quite hit the mark, I would describe these as appropriations. An appropriation is taking one thing and making it appropriate for a purpose. In this case visual elements are being made appropriate for representing text elements.

If you think about it, a letter glyph is in fact a visual element - but it is one we have described as "text" and to which we ascribe textual meaning. The example logo substitutes the letters 'S' with a pipe - but "substitute" does not adequately describe what has occurred. For example, if I had placed an image of a cat there, I would have substituted the letters "S" but lost their meaning - a cat is not appropriate for retaining the meaning, whereas the pipe is appropriate because its general shape conforms to the letter S.

The fact a pipe relates to what the text says, or means, is better described as the visual pun.

  • 3
    Please note, the system has flagged your answer for closure as "low-quality because of its length and content." An answer on this site is expected to be authoritative, detailed, and explain why it is correct, whereas your answer currently reads as a personal opinion without anything to support it. You can edit your answer to avoid closure - for example, add a dictionary definition for "appropriation", linked to the source. For further guidance, see How to Answer. Sep 26, 2018 at 11:48
  • @Chappo - updated. Sep 26, 2018 at 22:50
  • The explanation you've added does improve your answer, but it's still lacking authority. You say "An appropriation is taking one thing and making it appropriate for a purpose" but is this really what appropriation means, or is it just your take on the word? Without an authoritative reference, all we have is a well-presented personal opinion. Note how well-referenced the other answer is. Note how many votes they have. On this site, references are valued. :-) Sep 26, 2018 at 23:28
  • The pipe in SMOKE SHOP both mirrors the shape of the letter it's replacing and refers to the meaning of the word. However, I've seen examples where only one of those is true. Sep 29, 2018 at 7:52
  • @richardManeuv - Agreed. To summarise: how closely an image resembles meaning is subjective. Does the star in your wizard example represent a wizard? No - but animations of wizardry commonly have stars swirling about potions or wands and the like. I submit "appropriation" as a generic description of using one thing in place of another - the illustrator/typographer has appropriated the star to represent the letter 'A'; has appropriated the pipe to represent the letters 'S' (and reflect the meaning of the words). Oct 3, 2018 at 0:11

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