Road signs tell us how to get where we want to go. Exit signs in buildings light up when we need to escape; safety icons tell the fire brigade what to expect when involved in a rescue; parks and roadsides are littered with symbols designed to warn us off a variety of actions. Products we buy have nutrition labels we are expected to notice. Even phone and internet communication are littered with emoji these days. So, just how effective are signs, symbols or pictograms for communicating information and how can we enhance their meaning?
Have you found yourself staring at complex parking signs, wide-eyed as your blink rate decreased, pupils dilated in concentration, unable to fix attention on any one part because of the interaction of information in what often looks to be inherent contradiction? You are not alone. Amongst bureaucrats and city planners there seems to be an acceptance that symbols are readily comprehended in any form, and that packing them together more densely makes them more helpful. Instead, the approach overwhelms.
There is trap in using symbols. They seem so simple once we know the meaning. Then comes the assumption that everyone else with inherently understand the meaning without explicitly being taught. But pictograms lack the context of constructed language. They rely on physical association and experience.
Let's look at perhaps the most recognisable of all pictograms - the skull and crossbones. These naked elements of a skeleton scream death and danger. So, is it not reasonable to assume that they convey the idea of toxin or poison with ease when plastered on a bottle? Apparently not. UK researchers, Easterby and Hakiel found out decades ago that such warning signs are comprehended by only 20% to 50% of respondents. And that's a bit of a concern, especially now that we have a slue more, with bio-hazards, radiation, laser danger and carcinogens, each expected to trigger comprehension in the face of extreme danger.
As for food labelling, this uses symbols too, and often comes in for criticism. Now, in Australia, we have kangaroos and accompanying green and yellow bar charts to indicate origin. The nutrition-based, or health information is conveyed through a star-rating; the more the better right? Well not exactly.
So, what does it take to create a sign or pictogram that is easy to understand? Well, it seems there are six components:
1) The sign needs to be near the danger or situation, i.e. pointing in a relevant direction.
2) The pictogram should be coloured in accordance with cultural understanding, e.g. red for danger;
3) stylised to represent the physical environment, e.g. a cartoon of a collection of buildings if approaching a city, or a sloped line for a steep ascent;
4) a depiction of the real hazard, e.g. rocks falling onto a stick figure;
5) and standardised in use, i.e. replicating the features of other similar signs.
6) In addition, there must be opportunity for training or familiarisation through an educational process.
How about having a go at designing a sign using these criteria for something you want to convey, to see what happens. It's easier than you might think.
Of course, there is also the approach of combining the symbol with words, as seen in the sign used in the image above; and if the pictogram is constructed with the six principles listed above then this dual approach may provide the best of both worlds.
Till next time – B.W. Cribb