I seldom find articles I enjoy as much as the one I read on Slate.com the other day, debating the effectiveness of the lovely American EXIT sign.

You’ve probably never really stopped to ponder the Exit sign before, but if you will do so now, ask yourself these questions:

1. If you were a non-native English speaker, would you understand the word “Exit”?
2. If you had never seen this sign before, would you immediately understand its meaning?
3. Considering our use of the color red elsewhere, would the red Exit sign invoke you to stop or proceed?

exit

When you compare our Exit sign to the green “running man” sign adopted by many other countries, maybe you’ll agree that ours is ripe for a re-design.

What makes the running man sign a good choice? As a pictogram, just about anyone should be able to interpret the meaning of the sign. Also, the color green gives the sense of inviting rather than forbidding you to proceed through a doorway.

Anyway, this article got me thinking about the way companies are increasingly using icons and illustrations in lieu of translating text in their documentation, or as icons on their web site. These days, many global companies opt to use illustrations and symbols to increase understanding or decrease the cost of translations into multiple languages.

Flat-Pack Directions

IKEA is a perfect example of a company successfully using illustrations and icons in place of text, and if you’ve ever bought a piece of furniture from IKEA, you know what I mean.

Ikea Drawer Assembly Instructions

IKEA’s assembly instructions show you rather than tell you how to put your new bookshelf together. I am not sure about you, but I’ve found these instructions to be quite user-friendly. And can you imagine how much money this must save IKEA in translation costs? Consider that they have a range of 12,000 products and they translate into 30 languages!

Of course, it’s fairly easy to interpret in which direction you need to turn a screw, or where to place a shelf, so this system works well for IKEA.

Calorific McValues

In 2005, McDonald’s introduced a new nutrition label on their food packaging with symbols that are meant to represent nutritional components. They look like this:

McDonald’s nutrition symbols

And in case you’re having trouble understanding, here is the nutrition chart decoded:

new language for nutrition

What do you think about these icons? Are they easy to interpret? Based on your knowledge of nutrition, would you have been able to decode the nutrition label on your own? Do you think it is a good idea to generate an icon or image that will be understood by people in 109 countries, without modification or adaptation for different markets?

Are pictures better than words?

Feel free to leave your comments, but I will tell you that there are many issues that may prevent the effectiveness of using symbols, icons or illustrations in place of translated text. How can a company choose a group of icons that will mean the same thing in any location in the world, without causing offense or confusion?

It’s quite a challenge and in knowing that, McDonald’s did not choose to go at it alone – they enlisted the help of a language services provider. As this trend grows, more language services providers are offering cultural evaluation services for companies using images, symbols and illustrations in their documentation.

Experts (such as marketers or iconographers) evaluate symbols against a certain set of criteria to determine possible cultural offensiveness or insensitivity, appropriate use of color, similarity to existing symbols, ease of comprehension, etc.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. But I say, unless you can show the right pictures, you’d better use words. Wouldn’t you agree?