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Making use of symbols in other programs


Symbols can help many people - adults and children alike - access the ideas behind text that they otherwise find inaccessible. The use of symbols has been about since the 1980s but has been growing in popularity thanks to computer programs such as Writing With Symbols and Boardmaker, and the tireless work of Speech & Language Therapists.

See my recommended reading for further information about the use of symbols.

Symbols have been available for some time in computer programs designed to print simple communication boards and for high-tech aids (Boardmaker & Writing With Symbols), for symbol supported word-processors (Writing With Symbols) and more recently for desktop publishing (Communicate: In Print) and web browsing (Communicate: Webwide). Traditionally the most popular use of symbols in schools has been in producing resources and communication boards using Writing With Symbols 2000. One of the advantages of using Widgit's software is that they provide their symbols in a form that makes them accessible to other computer programs.

Even though this is the case I would be keen to know that more people are taking the initiative and using their symbols in other places on their computer. It's possible to insert symbols almost anywhere that you are able to insert any other image such as in Word documents, on web pages, in custom-made switch activities, Powerpoint presentations and so on. It's even possible to code your own computer programs that are driven by symbols instead of text!

I should point out that symbols sets are usually protected by copyright and you should carefully check your licence before distributing any items that include symbols.

The Problem

In a post that appeared recently on Becta's SENIT forum External Link a contributor asked if it was possible to add whole banks of symbols to Inspiration or Kidspiration's clipart library.

However we found that not only would it be a very long process to add hundreds of required symbols to the Inspiration library, it would also take a long time to search and find each one when it is needed to be inserted. In addition to this, the software does not currently support the use of EMF files (this being the format in which Widgit's symbols are currently shipped).

My Solution: A Symbol Gallery

Although there are many ways of accessing symbols such as through batch conversions and programs like IrfanView External Link, I find that using the Microsoft Clip Organizer is the most efficient solution. This is because the Clip Organizer is:

  • freely bundled in with Microsoft Office XP and 2003 (an older version is available with Office 2000)
  • removes the need to convert EMF files for programs that can't natively accept them
  • has a search function that allows symbols to be found very quickly in specific symbol collections
  • only takes up a small section of the screen and a relatively small amount of computer memory
A Symbol Browser working alongside Inspiration

This screenshot demonstrates how symbols (which Widgit currently distribute in EMF format) can be inserted into Inspiration (which doesn't natively accept EMF files). Although I am using Inspiration as an example you could actually use any other program that can accept graphics through the copy & paste method.

On the far right hand side of the screenshot you can see seven symbols stacked up on top of one another. These symbols are the result of the search query 'home'. Typing the search query into an adjacent box instantly reveals the symbols that match that word. I could choose to search through any symbol library I might have access to or all my symbol libraries at once.

Once my results are displayed it is then very easy to drag-and-drop or copy & paste any number of these symbols into my program.

How to Set it Up

Unfortunately it's not possible to accomplish such easy access to your symbols without putting in a little work beforehand. Fortunately, however, you only need to do this the one time and it doesn't take very long.

You will need:

  • Office XP or Office 2003
  • An accessible symbol library provided with software such as Writing With Symbols 2000 or Communicate: In Print
Clip Organizer Icon

Begin by launching the Microsoft Clip Organizer. This can be found on your Start Menu and is usually under 'Microsoft Office Tools'.

Windows Key, Arrow Keys, Enter

If you struggle to find it then go to Start > Search and look for an application called 'mstore'. You can do this via the keyboard of course:

Windows Key + F, TAB (and Enter to select 'All Files and Folders' if necessary)


Enter ... wait for search ... F6, Arrow Keys, Enter

Add Clips to Organizer

The Clip Organizer is likely to start by asking you if you would like it to search you hard drives for clipart and other usable media. If you don't want to be prompted with this message again then tick the box as you'll always be able to ask it to search later.


Either way don't allow the Organizer to search your computer. Click on the Later button.


The Clip Organizer

You should now be presented with the Microsoft Clip Organizer roughly as shown in this screenshot.

It is ready to use as it contains a small collection of clipart that is bundled with Microsoft Office; and can also search through clips in Microsoft's vast Web Collections currently available on the Internet. Obviously you can use these clips in Microsoft Office programs such as Word and PowerPoint, but you can also use them in other non-Microsoft applications such as Inspiration. Handy.

Feel free to experiment with searching through the standard clipart by clicking the Search button and entering a term...

ALT + S, "(search term)", Enter

...or continue reading to find out how to add your symbol libraries.

Collections of Clipart

You may be able to see in the screenshot above that there is a list of clip art 'Collections' on the left of the window. These usually include Favourites, Downloaded Clips, Office Collections and Web Collections. If you take a closer look at the screenshot you might be able to see that I also have a PCS-uk-bw collection as well as PCS-uk-co and Rebus96. Inside these folders are collections of all the symbols of that set.

I added these collections simply through drag-and-drop using my mouse. It's a bit more complicated if you are a keyboard-only user so if you are unable to continue please contact me and I'll explain how to do it using just the keys.

The symbols folder should contain a list of the subfolders containing the symbol sets installed on your computer.

Locate your symbols using Windows Explorer. Personally I have my symbols stored in My Documents\Symbols so I select My Documents from my Start Menu and then open my Symbols folder.

Your symbols are probably elsewhere. You are looking for a single folder which contains the folders with names that correspond to your symbol sets, such as PCS-UK-bw or Rebus96.

On Compact Disc

If you are accessing your symbols from the Writing With Symbols CD they can be found by opening My Computer from your Start Menu, selecting your CD Drive and then (unless your version is different to mine), opening the Resources folder and then the Graphics folder within it.

On your Computer

If you have installed your symbols to your computer's hard drive (which I would recommend if you have enough space) then they are likely to be found by selecting My Computer from the Start Menu, opening your primary hard drive (Usually C:), locating the Widresources folder and then opening the Graphics folder within that.

Searching for Symbols

If you are really stuck you could ask Windows to look for your symbols by selecting Search from the Start Menu. Ensure that you're looking for All Files & Folders and then under All or Part of the filename put in, exactly as written:


Click Search. When Windows has finished looking ensure that you are in Thumbnail view mode (Select Thumbnails from the View menu) and look down the list of results. There will almost certainly be files listed that aren't symbols and are stored elsewhere on your computer; but if you continue looking down the list you should see files that are obviously Rebus or PCS symbols. They are identifiable because they should appear in strict alphabetical order. Now right-click on one of these images and select Open Containing Folder from the menu that pops up.

This will open a new Windows Explorer window. Now simply click the Up toolbar button a couple of times to reveal your full list of symbol sets.

Well-positioned windows

Once you have located the folder containing your symbol sets, you need to arrange the Windows on your screen so that you have both the Clip Organizer and the folder visible at the same time.

If you get stuck then read the first stage of 'Positioning your Symbol Gallery' and then return here to carry on.

Start by ensuring that neither application is maxmised. If you need to 'Restore Down' your windows to a smaller size then press the following for each one:


Now use your mouse to position the windows. I would suggest that you resize the Clip Organizer (by dragging its borders) and then position it to the far left or far right of your screen (by dragging its title bar). The accompanying screenshot demonstrates how I would position my windows.

Drag and Drop into My Collections

Now you need to drag all or some of your symbol sets across to the Organizer one at a time. Do this by clicking on a symbol set folder such as PCS-bw-uk and, holding the left mouse button down securely, drag the folder across to the Organizer window. Carefully position your mouse over the 'My Collections' folder and then let go of the mouse button.

Progress Indication Dialog

There is a short wait while the clips are indexed.

Once the clips have been organized you can repeat the previous step for as many symbol libraries as you want to have available.

Positioning your Symbol Gallery

Everything is now set up and ready to use. You should never have to import your symbols again! The Clip Organizer automatically updates its catalogue and monitors the symbol folders so if you change or update any of your symbols this will immediately be reflected in the search results. Also if you want to move your symbols to another location (such as a network share) then you can easily inform Clip Organizer of the change.

Restore Button

Press restore button to shrink window

Window Resizing using borders

Drag window borders to resize further

Windows positioning by dragging title bar

Drag title bar to position the window


In this example I shall be using Inspiration as it does not natively accept EMF files. I am going to place the PCS symbol for 'Home' onto my mindmap.

Launch Inspiration and (if it's not already running) Microsoft Clip Organizer.

Windows Key, Arrow Keys, Enter

You'll need to ensure that neither program is maxmised so that they can be resized and positioned alongside one another. Check for the presence of a 'Restore' button next to each program's close button and press it if it exists. Then use the window borders to resize and the title bar to drag the program into position.

  • Restore Down: ALT, SPACE, R
  • Adjust Size: ALT, SPACE, S, Arrow Keys, ENTER
  • Adjust Position: ALT, SPACE, M, Arrow Keys, ENTER
The symbol gallery in position

I recommend that you arrange your windows so that as much of Inspiration (or other client program) is displayed as possible. The Clip Organizer should appear to be nothing much more than a Toolbar or Task Pane as shown in this screen capture.

The placement and dimensions of each window should be remembered by both the client program and the Clip Organizer - even if you restart your computer.

Searching for and Inserting Symbols

Searching for clips

We're now ready to go. You can search for a symbol by pressing the Search button and typing your query into the box that appears.


Click the Go button and you should see the resulting thumbnails appear next to the search box. These results should include symbols from all of the symbol libraries you have installed plus images from Microsoft's bundled clipart and online gallery. See below for information on how to search only through specific collections.

A sample error message

For programs that support the format of your symbols - in this case EMF - you can simply drag-and-drop the symbol into your document (keyboard users see the copy & paste method below).

If you try this with programs that don't support the format - such as Inspiration - you'll receive an error message saying "unexpected file format", "unable to read the file" or some other indication that the process hasn't worked. This could include, in the case of Inspiration, an attempt to read the image as a garbled text document which you'll then need to close in order to continue.

Right-click a symbol to reveal context menu

You can usually get around this problem using one of Windows' most useful features: Copy & Paste. Rather than dragging the symbol directly in to your client program, hover the mouse pointer over the symbol and click on the small downward arrow that appears to immediately to its right.

From this pop up menu you can select copy to copy the image to Windows' clipboard.

Then click on your client program and select Paste from the Edit menu.

It's much faster to use shortcut keys here:

  1. Click on the symbol
  2. Press CTRL + C
  3. Click on your client application
  4. Press CTRL + V
Or for keyboard-only users:

F6, Arrow Keys, CTRL + C, ALT + TAB, CTRL + V

Specify Symbol Sets to Search

Search all collections

As you may have found above the Organizer searches through all the symbol libraries you have added, as well as the clipart that came bundled with office and online clipart too.

To restrict the search to a particular symbol set (or 'collection'), or to one or two collections, you need to open the Search in: dropdown list. Click on the tiny plus sign next to 'My Collections' to reveal your symbol sets.

Now you should be able to see that by default all collections are searched through. Click once on the tick next to 'Everywhere' to clear all locations from the search.

Specify collections to search

Now you need to click twice on the box next to each collection that you want to include in your search. Clicking once simply won't work, you have to click once to put a tick in the box and then again to create a 'stack' of boxes as shown in the screenshot. Clicking a third time will clear the box again.

In the example shown in this screenshot the PCS-UK-co set will be searched, but the PCS-UK-bw collection will be ignored.

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