13 November 2006
John Perry, Project Leader ISO COPOLCO
John Perry, Project Leader ISO COPOLCO

Rarely a day passes without our coming into contact with graphical symbols in one way or another. They are found in technical product documentation, in instructions for the safe use of a wide range of products, on the controls of our motor vehicles, on lift controls, on domestic appliances and computers, and on medical products. They also feature as part of road signs, as well as in safety signs and public information signs found in workplaces and areas used by the general public.

Knowing how to research and design graphical symbols
The increasing use of graphical symbols is driven by the need to provide a language-independent means of communication in an era of rapidly growing world trade and movements of people. Graphical symbols may depict objects, animals and people and, depending on the intended use, may be designed to be understood intuitively or have no obvious visual connection with the function with which they are associated.

Graphical symbols can appear on their own or as a component of a sign. In one or other of these formats they are used to convey operational instructions, information about hazards and specified actions or prohibitions, and directions to exits, transport and other services.

It is impossible to discuss here all the various ways in which graphical symbols are used and this article concentrates on graphical symbols that are used:

- in the context of public information signs and safety signs;
- on equipment and products (this includes motor vehicles and almost all products and machinery found in the home and workplace).

Whilst many graphical symbols and signs are readily understood most of us will have come across, say, a sign in a public place whose meaning is not clear no matter how long we might spend looking at it. Many of the present problems are no doubt caused by the great proliferation in use of graphical symbols, and designers ignoring basic considerations and good practice.

Moreover, some graphical symbols that accompany consumer products appear to have been produced by a small group who, although no doubt expert in the products themselves, have no real knowledge of how to research and design graphical symbols. The result is often poorly developed symbols that are open to different meanings or can be interpreted in a way that could result in users being exposed to danger.

Asking friends or colleagues about the meaning of some of the symbols found on consumer products can be instructive: it can often produce amusing results. However, this ceases to be amusing when it is realised that these symbols are supposed to be conveying safety information.

Developing graphical symbols and signs with the consumer in mind
There can be no doubt that the best way of ensuring that graphical symbols and signs are effective is for them to be developed in accordance with a common set of internationally accepted procedures and standards. Such procedures are already set out in the ISO/IEC Directives and Supplements and are mirrored in the administrative procedures for CEN and CENELEC technical committees. However, they are not always applied correctly - or early enough - to ensure that the results are acceptable.

Concerns of the sort outlined above led COPOLCO (the ISO Consumer Policy Committee), and others, to conclude that the needs of consumers were not always taken into account when graphical symbols and signs are developed. This means that the potential benefits of using graphical symbols are not always achieved in practice. It was therefore agreed that a new guide on developing graphical symbols would be produced.

The document will be designated ISO/IEC Guide 74, and its working title is: Graphical symbols: technical guidelines for the consideration of consumers' needs. The work is being undertaken jointly by COPOLCO, ISO/TC 145, Graphical symbols, and IEC/TC 3/SC 3C, Graphical symbols for use on equipment. Experts in the specialised working group handling the development of the ISO/IEC Guide 74 come from Belgium, Germany, Japan, the Netherlands, Russia, Sweden, and the UK.

The working group's remit is to produce guidance for standards makers and designers of graphical symbols to ensure that the needs of consumers are taken into account when graphical symbols (which will also take in signs incorporating graphical symbols) are being designed and standardized.

The guide will complement rather than duplicate existing material by drawing on, and citing, existing ISO/IEC guides, standards, and other relevant publications.

Present position on the draft guide
The current position is that a first Committee Draft (CD) has been issued and comments have been received. These will be considered by the working group early in 2003.

A number of standards, together with a certain amount of relevant guidance, already exist in this area. The CD therefore draws on the factual position and themes outlined below.

International committees responsible for the development of standards and standardization of graphical symbols
Two international committees have responsibility for producing standards for the types of graphical symbols under discussion here and for the evaluation and standardisation of those symbols. It is therefore important that all ISO, IEC, CEN and CENELEC technical committees considering the development of graphical symbols for inclusion in standards should contact the relevant secretariat of one or other of these committees as soon as the potential need for a symbol has been identified.

The committees are:
- ISO/TC 145, Graphical symbols (which has three subcommittees SC 1, SC 2 and SC 3, covering public information signs, safety signs and graphical symbols for use on equipment);

- IEC/TC 3/SC 3C, Graphical symbols for use on equipment (which covers graphical symbols for use on electrical equipment).

Key International Standards
The key standards that have been published or are under development are:

ISO 7000, Graphical symbols for use on equipment - Index and synopsis

ISO 7001, Public information symbols

ISO 7010, Graphical symbols - Safety signs in workplaces and public areas

IEC 60417, Graphical symbols for use on equipment

ISO 3864, Safety colours and safety signs - Two parts cover safety signs in workplaces and design principles for product safety labels

ISO/IEC 80416, Basic principles for graphical symbols for use on equipment

ISO 17724, Graphical symbols - Vocabulary

IEC/414/INF, Processes for the validation of graphical symbols for use on equipment

Procedures for developing graphical symbols and signs
In addition to seeking and following advice from ISO/TC 145 and IEC/TC 3/SC 3C, technical committees and designers should follow the procedures set out below:

The message
Identify the message or nature of the hazard that is to be conveyed. This should follow on from a risk assessment which both ensures that any physical hazards are reduced as far as possible by design modifications to the product or premises and identifies the issue to be addressed by the graphical symbol.

Decide how the message should be conveyed
Decide whether the most appropriate form is a graphical symbol that will:

- form part of a public information sign;
- form part of a safety sign; or,
- be used on equipment (which can include home and industrial products and automotive vehicles).

In the case of a graphical symbol conveying a safety message that is used on equipment or a product, every effort should be made to identify whether this relates to the equipment or the human user.

The target audience
Think carefully about the people who make up the target audience and any particular communication needs they may have. The target audience might comprise a single group such as children, older people, or a cross-section of the general public including those with differing physical and mental abilities. It may comprise personnel trained in health and safety issues, untrained visitors to an establishment or public place, or a combination of both.

In some cases it will be necessary for a graphical symbol appearing on its own or as part of a sign to be accompanied by supplementary text, either to provide information about a particular hazard (such as on a product safety label) or to aid understanding of the intended meaning of a public information or safety sign.

Supplementary text will also help to establish the intended meaning of a sign in the minds of the general public. There will also be situations were supplementary audio, visual or tactile reinforcement will be necessary.

Cultural differences
There may be cultural differences - such as preferences or prohibitions - that need to be identified and taken into account when designing graphical symbols. For example, in some cultures, depictions of parts of the human body or particular images may not be acceptable, and some colours may have particular connotations in one culture and evoke different responses in another.

In this context, it is important to ensure that a graphical symbol does not convey one meaning to one group and another meaning to a different group. These matters should be researched carefully and appropriate advice sought and acted upon.

Check for existing symbols that convey the same, intended meaning
Undertake research, including contacting the secretariat of ISO/TC 145 and IEC/TC 3/SC 3C, to ascertain whether a graphical symbol suitable for the intended purpose already exists. If one does exist, then it should be used rather than risk creating confusion by attempting to introduce another symbol.

Designing a new graphical symbol
If it is established that a suitable symbol does not exist, then follow the design and standardisation procedures set out in the relevant International Standards referred to above.

Standardisation of a graphical symbol
Standardisation is the procedure whereby a new graphical symbol is validated against the relevant design criteria and then accepted as a standard and published. Although standardisation is not mandatory, it has clear advantages:

- including encouraging greater use of graphical symbols leading to better public recognition.

The international committees charged with the evaluation and standardisation of graphical symbols and signs follow broadly the same basic procedures. In essence, these comprise the following steps:

- submission of the graphical symbol to the relevant committee in a specified format and on a standardised form;

- evaluation by an expert group against the relevant design criteria and, where appropriate, assessment of the results of comprehension tests (see below);

- standardization approval;

- assignment of a registration number and publication in the relevant standard (i.e. some of those listed under 'key standards' above).

Comprehension testing
An issue that is much discussed is how to ensure that the message that a public information or safety sign is intended to convey is in fact understood by the intended audience. It is generally accepted that the best way of assessing whether a sign incorporating a graphical symbol conveys the intended message is some form of controlled and impartial evaluation by individuals representing the target audience.

ISO 9186 sets out procedures for evaluating the comprehensibility of safety signs and public information signs. In some product areas (for example some automotive and electronic products, particularly computers), the effectiveness and acceptability of both graphical symbols and the new product on which they are used are assessed during the same user trials.

Other considerations which affect the comprehensibility of a sign
The approval and standardisation of a symbol or sign is not the end of the story as far as overall effectiveness is concerned. An otherwise excellent, well researched and designed, graphical symbol or symbol/sign combination may lose its effectiveness when poorly reproduced or used in an inappropriate setting.

For example, the background colour and decor against which the sign is viewed may result in it not being sufficiently prominent or comprehensible. Poor choice of lighting may have the same effect. The size and location of a sign, as well as its durability, are also factors that need to be carefully considered in this context.

Symbols in everyday life
The importance of graphical symbols and signs in everyday life cannot be over-emphasized. They can provide an effective method of communicating information when developed and used correctly - but unfortunately this is not always the case. ISO/IEC Guide 74 will, when completed, make a major contribution to ensuring that the International Standards and procedures that have been produced are correctly used, so that consumers gain the maximum benefit from this important method of communication.

What is a graphical symbol?
A graphical symbol is defined as: a visually perceptible figure with a particular meaning used to transmit information independently of language.

When designed and used properly graphical symbols can:

- have visual impact - especially in large public places;
- provide information in a compact form; and,
- provide information in a visual form that is independent of national languages.

Poorly designed graphical symbols can:

- confuse people with the likelihood that they will be ignored;
- unintentionally convey a message different or opposite to that which is intended.

In either case the result can be critical confusion with potentially disastrous consequences.

John Perry
Project Leader
ISO COPOLCO - ISO Committeee on Consumer Policy