Danger. Not safe around pets. Keep out of reach of children. Do not take internally. The weekend gardener takes heed of every one of these warning messages. But what happens when instructions are written in an unfamiliar language and these warnings are merely represented through symbols?
According to research being performed by Dr. Tonya L. Smith-Jackson, assistant professor of Human Factors Engineering at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, while warning symbols have their basis in cross-cultural communication and universal understanding, some warning symbols currently in use can lead to potentially dangerous confusion.
Written warning messages are pretty straight forward, but warning symbols or icons don’t always fare so well. Dr. Smith-Jackson, who is currently working on a study to determine the effectiveness of symbols used on pesticide warning labels with regard to Latino farm workers, indicates that sometimes those helpful symbols don’t really help much at all.
In earlier research, Smith-Jackson found that while some symbols, like the skull symbol, had a meaning that was highly recognizable, other symbols, including the poison control “Mr. Yuk” symbol or the high voltage warning symbol, weren’t conveying their intended messages. “[These symbols] were not comprehended, and in many instances, were not assigned a negative connotation,” said Smith-Jackson. With Mr. Yuk, for example, not only did a majority of the respondents fail to attach a negative meaning to the symbol, a few even interpreted the symbol as meaning something good to eat