Designing international symbols can be hazardous

“Push button, get bacon” – that’s how a joke t-shirt interprets those instructional icons from the hand dryers you often see in public restrooms. Out of context, these types of icons can be either humorous or unintelligible. Even in context, their meaning can be obscure. Now imagine that you’re from another country. Would the icons you see everyday make sense?

Using icons for international communications seems like a good idea. Rather than writing everything out in several different languages, just use a picture that everyone can understand. There is a problem, though: designing icons that really do get across the same meaning to people from different languages and cultures, even in the proper context, isn’t that easy.

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Consider the development of public information icons by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), the non-governmental organization that works out voluntary international technical standards for everything from agriculture to construction to internet technology. The original standard icons, adopted by consensus in 1980, were based on the “ISOTYPE” (International System of TYpographic Picture Education) system of icons and pictograms introduced by Otto Neurath in Vienna in 1936. But, soon after the standards were published the ISO determined that the icons did not, in fact, convey the same meaning to people in different countries. The icons have been through several amendments since their initial publication.

Cultural Differences

Part of the problem is the difficulty that designers have in understanding how culturally bound some images are. One commentary on common mistakes in icon design pointed to the seemingly innocuous idea of using a mailbox symbol (usually an American rural mailbox) to indicate mail. Mailboxes actually look very different in different countries (as he illustrates with pictures).

International symbols can still reflect a culture. These sports symbols, designed by Min Wang for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, are meant to suggest Chinese calligraphy. Click on picture to enlarge

Click to enlarge

Many animals may seem to be universally associated with certain traits; for example, the association of the owl with wisdom. However, IBM’s design guidelines for customers seeking to globalize their business note that in some southeast Asian countries these birds are thought to be stupid. Colors, other natural objects – the list of things that can carry very different connotations in different cultures is a long one.

Hand signals may mean entirely different things in different countries and many of them mean something offensive somewhere. (This is why arrows are always better than pointing hands to indicate directions.) The same can be said of other types of body language.

And, speaking of direction, an icon designer must also keep in mind that some languages are read from right to left. An icon made up of more than one element can be problematic for some audiences if it needs to be read in a particular direction. For example, the following sequence read left-to-right tells a European audience that this drink will perk them up. It tells an Arabic audience reading right-to-left that it will knock them out.

The ISO and the international radiation symbol

The ISO decided to establish more standards (ISO 9186) for testing icons. The standards detail where and with what audiences to test icons and how to score the results. Icons that reach a certain threshold can be added to ISO 7001.

It’s probable that no icon can be understood by people of all cultures and levels of education, especially if the icon is out of context. But a couple of years ago, the ISO and the IAEA did their best to come up with such an icon to warn anyone trying to disassemble a machine with a large source of potentially lethal ionizing radiation, such as a food irradiation unit. The traditional trefoil symbol on its yellow background was only recognizable to someone educated about it. Many children, it turned out, thought the symbol was a propeller. The new icon (ISO 21482), shows the trefoil, a skull and crossbones and a running figure on a red background. It may look funny, but it was tested in 11 countries before being released in February 2007. An ISO video explains why and how the symbol was developed.

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