Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Are Icons Really a Global Language?

In "The Global Language: Using Symbols and Icons When Delivering Technical Content", Alan J. Porter writes in the December 2010 issue of Intercom, the journal of the Society for Technical Communication, that "many icons such as the ones on your computer screen are common enough that none of them require explanation". Well ...

This is certainly true for me, and probably for most of you, as well. But go back just one generation. How many such icons are familiar to your parents? Mine may recognize the MS Windows logo as something computer-related, but a diskette as a "Save" icon -- indeed, the very concept of saving data electronically instead of as a hard copy -- may well not be understood without an explanation. The same is likely true for many people in the developing world, or even members of marginalized groups in industrialized countries.

Simplified graphics can convey information across cultural and linguistic barriers more easily than words can. Hitchhiking across Europe in my youth, I found that gestures and improvised stick-figure images let me get by in countries where I didn't speak the local -- or the dominant foreign -- language. Computer and furniture manufacturers are also turning more and more to graphics for their setup and assembly instructions. Some have even dispensed with text altogether in these instructions.

While that design reduces or eliminates translation costs, it is not as fool-proof as one might think. Even well-designed pictoral instructions rely on certain cultural conventions -- reading sequences from left to right, one horizontal row at a time, for example. How would a user accustomed to a right-to-left language, such as Arabic or Hebrew, read these instructions?

Similarly, Western icons indicating danger, such as a red background color, may not mean the same thing somewhere else. How would someone in rural China -- where red is associated with luck, not danger -- interpret such a warning box? Might they think that the action depicted in the red box is to be preferred, rather than avoided?

I'd say, a picture can supplement, but not replace, a thousand words. And these words will still need to be translated...

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