04 February 2008
Barry Gray, Chair of ISO/TC 145, Graphical symbols
Barry Gray, Chair of ISO/TC 145, Graphical symbols

In our ever-changing world, people and jobs are always on the move. The universal language of good, standardized graphical symbols is therefore a strong potential boon for citizens everywhere.

Symbols can already be easily seen on their own or as part of signs in all kinds of places - in the home or office; in the car or on the beach; in a factory or airport. In fact, we come across graphical symbols in just about every human activity. They are there to inform and guide, sometimes to warn, but always constituting an aid for us, as we go about our daily business. ISO technical committee ISO/TC 145, Graphical symbols is at the forefront of a wide-ranging programme of graphical symbol standardization.

Protecting the public
Warning people of hazards and how to avoid them is a vital task in today's health and safety conscious world. ISO/TC 145 welcomes proposals from all fields of activity involving personal safety, and its experts spend a great deal of time and effort in ensuring that high standards of design and con-tent are met. Background explanations as to why the new safety signs are needed, and what safety functions they provide are an important part of the committee's considerations. This also helps to ensure that the signs are used correctly, and will be of value when searching the ISO database that is currently being developed.

ISO 7010, Graphical symbols - Safety colours and safety signs - Safety signs used in workplaces and public areas, is the core standard containing safety signs. It is regularly updated, due to the strong demand from all sectors of the community for clear and helpful signs.

As well as a standard on performance and durability (ISO 17398:2004, Safety colours and safety signs - Classification, performance and durability of safety signs), there is one for safety way guidance systems [ISO 16069:2004, Graphical symbols - Safety signs - Safety way guidance systems (SWGS)] and work is progressing on ISO 23601, Safety identification - Escape plan signs, which refers to the plans displayed in hotels, factories, and offices showing escape routes and the location of fire equipment.

Safety at the beach
In recent years, subcommittee SC 2 has been working closely with industry partners, such as lifesaving organizations, in the water safety area. This project has covered various types of symbols, such as beach safety flags. For a long time, differences have exist- ed in the flags used on beaches around the world, a dangerous problem identified by the World Tourism Organization. The publication of ISO/FDIS 20712-2, Water safety signs and beach safety flags - Part 2 : Specifications for beach safety flags - Colour, shape, meaning and performance, should help bring a common approach and save lives.

A comprehensive range of signs has been developed for use on beaches and at other water areas, such as swimming pools and lakes, in the first part of the ISO 20712 series of standards on water safety. For this purpose, the committee once more benefited from the direct help of professionals involved in this area, as well as safety sign experts.

Considerable advantages were gained from testing sign designs using the procedures of ISO 9186-1:2007, Graphical symbols - Test methods - Part 1: Methods for testing comprehensibility. This revised standard was published earlier this year and will soon be joined by its companion, ISO 9186-2, which covers methods for testing perceptual quality.

To help those needing to display flags and signs, ISO 20712-3, Water safety signs and beach safety flags - Part 3 : Guidance for the use of water safety signs and beach safety flags will be published soon giving helpful guidance for their use.

Targeting tsunamis
A recent exciting venture has seen ISO/TC 145 working closely with the Japanese Government and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) on safety signs in connection with the threat from tsunami. It has been a particularly challenging task to create suitable designs supported by a comprehensive information package for places at risk. This effort has shown how we can work with outside agencies to achieve a result which meets the needs of the proposing parties, without compromising essential design and implementation principles.

Informing the public: New developments
Another standard about to be published is the much awaited revision of ISO 7001, Graphical symbols - Public information symbols, which updates and expands the 1990 edition. It covers the main requirements for images displayed in airports and other public areas, but it was also produced with the expectation that the graphical symbols would be used on maps and guides.

This is being followed with new work starting on ISO 28564-1, Public information guidance systems - Design principles and requirements for elements - Part 1: Layout plans, which will form part of a suite of standards covering signage and wayfinding issues, thus extending the scope of the committee's work.

ISO 7001 was revised with accessibility issues in mind, and will be expanded to take into account the increasing demands for a clear and concise way of presenting information readily to the widest possible public. Over 100 potential symbols have already been identified for future consideration in such areas as sports, tourism, commerce and transport.

ISO 7001 and ISO 7010 use the same graphical images for people and objects, and are based on the premise that a symbol should be readily associated with its intended meaning. This ideal is not always possible and guidance is given as to when and how to use supplementary text to assist with understanding, or to give further information. Test data, when available, helps to guide these decisions. Abstract symbols need to be learned, and should therefore be avoided whenever possible. However, there are some messages which are incapable of direct representation and require an abstract image, an example being the biological hazard warning sign.


Rationale behind the design
The final group of symbols is actually the largest, and involves those for use on equipment covering a wide range of uses, including, for example, industrial machinery, motor vehicles and household electrical products. The different ways in which these are used, means that abstract images are more common. These are the graphical symbols on equipment covered in ISO 7000 and IEC 60417.

This wide and disparate group of graphical symbols still has to conform to design rules, but in this case, the purely visual representation of the intended image is not always the main criterion. There are many reasons for this, including the fact that the user groups are more frequently part of a trained workforce, and that the graphical symbols have to be reproduced in a much smaller size. Some will be familiar to all of us, for example, the windscreen (or windshield) washer symbol in our cars, but most are restricted to very specific applications. An example is symbol 2195 Combine, restricted crop flow (see image). The whole basis of the work implies close cooperation with other technical committees and industry bodies.

There is a range of conventions for representing different functions and actions, such as movement and force. Although many symbols may appear random, there is always a rationale behind the design.

The subcommittee experts face a challenging task to keep up with the continuous flow of new requirements, and are developing a system of electronic voting with, at its heart, an evolving database, originally developed by IEC. The issue of ISO 7000 published in 2004 was the final paper based version. ISO 7000 and IEC 60417 symbols are now published in a joint ISO/IEC database, which is currently available by subscription.

Thinking of a new symbol?
As well as publishing standardized symbols, the committee has developed a range of design principles to help those who wish to propose new symbols for :
safety signs - the ISO 3864 series, Graphical symbols - Safety colours and safety signs;
public information - ISO 22727, Graphical symbols - Creation and design of public information symbols - Requirements (to be published later this year); and
equipment - four standards in the ISO 80416 series on basic principles for graphical symbols for use on equipment, shared between ISO and IEC.

Furthermore, the subcommittee Web sites include the application forms and templates for designers.

Accessible, available and used by all
ISO/TC 145 has embraced the potential of a searchable database as the way forward for our compilations of actual symbols. The committee is therefore at the forefront of the development work currently taking place for the ISO common platform software, which will allow the development of standardized databases on standard related information such as terminology, symbols, and biometric data. Among the first databases to be created under this project are ISO 7001 and ISO 7010, since the commit- tee's goal is for symbols to be accessible, available and used by the widest possible audience, so that they can improve both the speed and efficiency of our work.

A final cautionary thought: graphical symbols have to be used properly and in the right context. Over-complication and overuse can undermine their effectiveness while some multifaceted concepts may not be suitable for a graphical symbol. Symbols cannot solve all problems!

Having said that, it is worth repeating that, through its three subcommittees, its many working groups and its dedicated band of experts, ISO/TC 145 is committed to continuing to supply these helpful tools for industry, commerce and, most importantly, the consumer, providing standardized symbols for the world citizen of today at work, at home and at play.

About the author


Barry Gray is Chair of ISO/ TC 145, Graphical symbols, having previously been Chair of ISO/ TC 145/SC 1, Public information symbols. He is Convenor of two working groups in ISO/TC 145 and a contributor to the work of other TCs in ISO and the European Committee for Standardization (CEN). He carries out similar roles for the British Standards Institute (BSI). He has chaired The Sign Design Society and was formerly Signing and Design Manager for Network Rail. He is an honorary fellow of the University of Brighton.

A look at graphical symbols
ISO/TC 145 is the horizontal committee responsible for the standards establishing the design principles for graphical symbols and safety signs, and for the international standardization of the symbols and signs which meet the relevant criteria. The committee has very active working groups supported by experts from all over the world. Its coordination role helps ensure good design and avoid unnecessary proliferation and duplication.

It is an exciting time for the committee, as new standards are being published and its work is spreading into new fields.
The workload is handled through its three subcommittees (SC) :
SC 1, Public information symbols ;
SC 2, Safety identification, signs, shapes, symbols and colours ; and
SC 3, Graphical symbols for use on equipment.

Subcommittee SC 3 works closely with the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) IEC/TC 3/SC 3, Graphical symbols for use on equipment, which shares the responsibility for equipment symbols. A joint working group between the two organizations has been created for this purpose. Indeed, all the subcommittees of ISO/TC 145 work together with industry and commercial partners, whether in vast industries like the automotive, or specialized ones such as those involved with automatic teller machines or defibrillators. The committee also keeps close links with international organizations such as the World Tourism Organization.

This Feature originally appeared in ISO Focus, September 2007. It is reprinted with permission.