If it hasn’t happened to you yet, someday it probably will. You’re having dinner at a restaurant, you excuse yourself to go to the restroom, and suddenly you’re faced by two doors. Clearly labeled “Men’s” and “Women’s,” right? Yes, in the designer’s mind. But instead of words, they’re labeled with some sort of creative picture, icon or symbol that made perfect sense to the designer, but try as you might, you just can figure out which one is supposed to represent you.
The intentions are great – communicate through pictures, cross language barriers, talk in a manner everyone can understand. But there’s a problem. The same pictures don’t always evoke equivalent meanings to all people.
Dr. Tonya L. Smith-Jackson, Assistant Professor of Human Factors Engineering and Director of the Assessment and Cognitive Ergonomics (ACE) Lab at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University has first-hand experience with miscommunication through symbols. Working with Ghanaian and Latino farm workers, Smith-Jackson conducted a pair of studies regarding the workers’ perceived meaning of six commonly-used pesticide warning labels. And the resulting meanings were probably not exactly what the warning label designers had intended.
Smith-Jackson looked the following symbols:
Skull poison, toxicity
Shock electric shock; hazardous voltage
Mr. Yuck poison, toxicity
Prohibition general prohibition, banned
Alert general danger
Asterisk alert; attention capture symbol
“Both the Ghanaian and Latino participants were generally familiar with the skull symbol and the prohibition symbol (circle with slash) and assigned a negative or hazardous connotation to the symbols,” said Smith-Jackson. “However, other symbols such as the ANSI Z535 Alert symbol [exclamation point in triangle] and symbols for such things as voltage or the “Mr. Yuck” [poison control symbol] were not comprehended and in many instances, were not assigned a negative connotation.”
Overall, the skull symbol had the most accurate response – 81 percent of those interviewed in the study of Ghanaian farm workers stated that it either indicated poison or danger. Fifty-eight percent of the respondents understood the prohibition meaning. But the other four symbols didn’t fare as well.
Only 19 percent of the respondents applied a correct or similar meaning to the shock symbol while over half of the respondents could apply no meaning to the same symbol. Sixty-two percent could apply no meaning to the alert symbol, and 84 percent could offer no meaning for the asterisk symbol.
The Mr. Yuck symbol, however, showed the greatest risk of misinterpretation. According to Smith-Jackson’s study, 68 percent of the Ghanaian farm workers “could not elaborate or provide an interpretation after further questioning. The remaining respondents reported that the Mr. Yuck symbol looked like a face, the face of a cow, a man with a mustache, or something related to food or baby products.” Ten percent of the respondents reported that it had negative connotations while 22 percent of the respondents applied an inaccurate, positive connotation to the Mr. Yuck symbol.
While confusion is just as readily apt to occur in travel-oriented signs, in some instances, there’s really no way to get around the use of symbols. For example, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) relies heavily on symbols, or as they refer to them, “pictograms.” At any given Olympic games, travelers from around the globe descend upon a town for the few weeks of events. It is neither expected nor possible that all of the visitors could speak or read one common language. Yet, still, games attendees require information.
Graphic images used to represent Olympic sporting events were first used at the 1948 games in London. However, the pictograms at the 1964 Tokyo games are credited with being the earliest influential set.
According to a 1992 report on pictograms by the IOC, “pictograms used for international events should require no learning. It is therefore pointless to create graphic images which are too abstract or too stylized.” Therefore, over the years, very simple designs were developed using guidelines that dictated that the images look like signs rather than illustrations, that they be culturally independent, inoffensive, understandable by people with varied education levels, be simple to understand, and designed uniformly.
According to a United States Olympic Committee representative, each home city is responsible for developing its own set of pictograms which leads to a varied mix of signs over the years. While some are very simple in execution and readily understandable, pictograms from Lillehammer and Barcelona, for example, were more interpretive and artistic, straying somewhat from the original design guidelines, and informally creating a new set of less structured guidelines.
But where does all of this leave the traveler who is trying to determine which restroom fits him or her? A study cited in a 1997 OSHA report on the subject of warning signs suggested that signs should include “a standard signal word, statements of the hazard, the potential consequences, and how to avoid the hazard.” But with regard to the restroom sign, the study indicated that while the traditional dress-clad or pants-wearing stick figures used to mark most restrooms didn’t match the above signage recommendations, “social embarrassment” was motivation enough for a visitor to apply the correct meaning to a restroom sign.
This article originally appeared in The Ergonomics Report™ on 2003-05-01.