Pictograms, International Communication and Cultural Diversity (Part 3)


Pictogram Examples
The history of pictograms illustrated the problems and criticisms faced in the past and explained how pictograms work. It did not demonstrate how pictograms can have personality, or vary in style from culture to culture. By using examples I hope to demonstrate a variety of ways in which pictogram designs are influenced. This includes looking at a period in time, culture, surroundings, art & design and even laws and regulations.

It is true to say that some pictograms show no cultural identity or personality in their design. They are standardised, uniform, and common to more than one culture. For example the skull and crossbones is still the most commonly used standard symbol for poison and the ATM now has an official global pictogram. In some cases, the message the pictogram is conveying is extremely important. In these circumstances, rules, regulations and even laws govern the symbols that are used. From the 1st January 1997 a new harmonised European standard on fire extinguishers BS EN3 came into effect. It provided a single standard for fire extinguishers across Europe and replaced the old British Standard BS 5423. Many associations set standards on how information is communicated using pictures. ISO 7001, “Graphical symbols for use on public information signs”, is a set of international symbols based on the Isotype system of pictograms. ISO 9186 is a method for user testing of symbols to find out which communicate the intended meaning most readily to most people. There are two main techniques for testing: a comprehensibility judgment test and a comprehension test. Only pictograms with exceptionally high comprehensibility in numerous countries can become part of the ISO 7001 set.

ISO 7001
ISO Pictogram Examples

Symbols relating to the classification, packaging and labeling of dangerous substances, is another area particularly influenced by rules. Council Directive 67/548/EEC of the 27th June 1967 is the main European Union Law concerning chemical safety. In all these instances, injecting personality or cultural meaning into the pictogram, would serve no meaning. It would only distract from the very important messages they are trying to communicate. The aim is that despite the language spoken by the interpreter, the critical information is communicated.

Toxic Symbol
Toxic Symbol

Many people agree pictograms should meet standards. Aicher the ultimate pragmatist said that design must surrender to practical criteria and the examples shown so far have demonstrated that there are instances where pictograms do have to be standard or rigid in their design, but this is not true in all cases. Being so rigid in all forms of pictogram design would have negative effects. Information in public spaces such as airports, hospitals or subways need to be efficient and clear in the way they communicate, but there is a lot more room for them to display qualities that are more personal or culturally specific. Luckily not all designers share the belief that pictograms must be standardised and this has opened the door for more creative design approaches. Some variations of standard signs are subtle. They are not specific to certain cultures and the changes are not influenced by any particular idea. These quirks do not necessarily say anything about where they are from or who designed them, but start to demonstrate how individual a pictogram can be. The man at work sign/roadworks demonstrates this concept. It is the same standard sign, but with variations from country to country. The man wears different headgear, is bent over at a different angles and has a different shaped tools, but does this really make any difference to the overall message?

Toxic Symbol
Man at Work Symbol

More examples on there way…watch this space!

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1 Response to Pictograms, International Communication and Cultural Diversity (Part 3)

  1. Pingback: 2010 in review | Wayfinding_UK's Blog

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