The use of symbols have a long tradition. Symbols ﬁrst
appeared as paintings or carvings on caves and stone walls
as early as 50,000 BC, with the ﬁrst depiction of humans
dating back about 11,000 years (Dewar, 1999). There is
a need for various symbols in modern societies. Taking
up only a very small amount of space, symbols can convey
information, equivalent to one or more sentences of text.
Quirk, Greenbaum, Leech, and Svartvik (1985) noted that
pictograms most reliably can substitute for words in
“block language”— single-word captions, headings, and
labels — as distinct from sentenced language. Eco (1976)
suggested that the verbal equivalent of an iconic sign is
not a word but a phrase or indeed a whole story. This is,
of course, also the case with the large number of Chinese
kanji-characters, designating different words and
sometimes phrases. The modern symbols typically found
in airports and in travel guides are intended to convey
generalities of the same order of abstractness as words.
Their characteristic graphic neutrality is perhaps the most
signiﬁcant aspect of their invention by the Isotype Institute
Symbols may be visually more distinctive than text.
Their syntax and semantics may be simpler. Image
perception is rapid, virtually “instantaneous.” Reading
and comprehending the equivalent message in words takes
much more time, and may fail if it is hard to read the text.
So symbols permit rapid reading and comprehension, and
they may require less time and effort for learning. This is
important in numerous situations, e.g., in trafﬁc, in
industry, and in aviation. With the increase in international
travel and trade, there is a growing need to communicate
with people who do not understand the language of the
country they are in. The use of symbols is one of the most
common ways to deal with this situation. However, there
may also be some disadvantages with symbols. Symbols
may be less efﬁcient than text in conveying abstract, as
well as detailed information.
When designers in different countries are working on
similar problems they may create different solutions and
different designs. In each case, they may have clear
intentions and objectives with his or her information sets.
However, it is always up to the interpreter/s to conceive
or misconceive information, to use or not use it.
It is reasonable to assume that (1) a speciﬁc message
may be communicated to the receiver/s or interpretor/s
with several different symbols. It is also reasonable to
assume that (2) a speciﬁc symbol may be used to
communicate several different messages. If the
assumptions above are correct it would indicate that (3)
we will normally have to learn the intended meaning of
Visuals can be classiﬁed according to various criteria.
Doblin (1980) classiﬁed iconographic (visual)
information into several categories:
(photography, drawing, and drafting),
(charts, graphs, or diagrams), and
(symbols that attempt to convey a highly speciﬁc meaning,
such as a road sign). Cochran (1987) distinguished
between actual events/objects,
. Examples of iconic
representations are ﬁlm and TV-images, still photographic
pictures, and realistic art work. Computer graphics,
symbols and signs, and words are all examples of arbitrary
representations. Here, no cues from actuality are left.
Hunter, Crismore, and Pearson (1987) presented a
classiﬁcation as points along a continuum from realistic
to abstract: photography, artwork, diagrams and maps,
graphics and formulae, tables and charts, orthography
(icons), and verbal symbols.
For Wileman (1993) all kinds of representations of any
object are symbols. He argues that there are three major
ways to represent objects ranging from concrete to abstract
representations. The ﬁrst group,
includes photographs and illustrations or drawings.
Viewers should easily be able to translate a pictorial
Graphic Symbols—Design And Meaning
The 31th Annual Conference of the International Visual Literacy Association, Jackson, Wyoming, October 6–10, 1999.
This paper includes a study of 52 different pedestrian warning and information crossing road signs from 32 different
countries. Every situation and every context demands a consistent use of symbols, an explanation of the symbols used,
and learning of the meaning of those symbols. Well-designed symbols can be used, and can work in different cultures,
in different parts of the world.
symbol to a real-world example. The second group,
, has image-related graphics, concept-
related graphics, and arbitrary graphics. Image-related
graphics can be characterized as silhouettes or proﬁles of
the object. Concept-related graphics look like the object
but have less detail than image-related graphics. Arbitrary
graphics are abstract symbols for objects, constructed out
of the designer’s imagination. The third group,
is divided into two sub-groups, verbal
descriptions and nouns or labels. Verbal symbols can be
understood only by people who comprehend the language
used to describe the objects.
However, in my view, there seems to be no major
difference in “abstractness” between the abstract arbitrary
graphic symbols and the verbal symbols. Based on the
above classiﬁcations I prefer to distinguish between two
main categories of representations, (I) ﬁgurative
representations, and (II) non-ﬁgurative representations
(Pettersson, 1993). Figurative representations include two
subgroups: (1) visuals and (2) graphic symbols. Also non-
ﬁgurative representations include two subgroups: (1)
verbal symbols and (2) non-visual representations.
In this paper, the main focus is on
its three subgroups pictorial
symbols, abstract symbols,
symbols. Graphic symbols may represent
objects as well as ideas. Functional graphic symbols are
actually older than words. They are found in every culture
however primitive. In speciﬁc areas symbols are a
supplement to all languages to help create better and faster
understanding. Graphic symbols have evolved to the point
of universal acceptance in such areas as music,
mathematics, and in many branches of science.
(or representational symbols) are
“image related” and simpliﬁed pictures. Pictorial symbols
resemble the objects they represent. They can be
, shadows, or proﬁles with no
surface detail. A trafﬁc sign with a silhouette of a
locomotive, to denote a railroad crossing, is an example
of a pictorial symbol. (See Figure 3.)
In the design process, some pictorial symbols may be
successively simpliﬁed into ﬁgurative and
. To some extent, abstract symbols still look like
the objects they represent but they have less detail than
pictorial symbols and they may consist of several
graphical elements; dots, lines, and areas. In athletic
contests, like the olympic games, abstract graphic
symbols are often used to denote the different kinds of
sports. Good abstract graphic symbols are intuitive and
we should be able to understand their meaning without
Some ﬁgurative symbols are
are invented and constructed out of the designer's
imagination. Usually arbitrary graphic symbols have no
resemblance at all to the objects or the ideas they represent.
Many are based only on the use of geometric shapes and
colours. Many signposts and some trafﬁc signs are
examples of signs with arbitrary symbols. Arbitrary
symbols are unambiguous by convention. We agree and
decide on their meaning. Just as new terms have to be
learned when we begin to study a new topic, we have to
learn arbitrary graphic symbols, and every motorist have
to pass a test in order to get a driver’s licence.
Use Of Symbols
Pettersson (1985, 1987) concluded that
image content often is different from intended image
. Even simple pictures and also symbols may cause
many different associations. A given set of basic picture
elements and symbols can be combined to form
completely different images. Moriarty and Sayre (1993)
studied intended and perceived advertising meanings.
They also found a high level of
intended and perceived messages
. More than half of the
responses were different from those intended, and
expected by the message creators.
Symbols must be meaningful, legible, learnable,
memorable and used consistently (Dewar, 1999). The
meaning of a symbol is seldom easy to guess. Pettersson
(1989, 1993), Grifﬁn and Gibbs (1993) and Olmstead
(1999) found that graphic symbols were interpreted in
many different ways. Sometimes only a few persons will
understand the intended meaning of a symbol. Thus, the
sender will always have to supply explanations for the
symbols used in any speciﬁc situation.
(1995) studied how international business
people interpreted and understood commonly used clip art
graphic symbols. The symbols were taken from a Harward
Graphics software package for business presentations.
Based on 4.530 opinions expressed by 302 subjects in
Japan, Sweden, Tanzania and USA, regarding 15 of the
symbols in the software package, Grifﬁn
following two conclusions:
•There are many ways to interpret symbols. Very few
people share the same understanding of any given
•There are strong cultural differences in interpreting
the meanings of symbols.
resulted in many interesting
observations. Symbols in this category were either
understood or not understood at all. There were 90%
appropriate answers from the subjects in the USA and 80%
from the subjects in Sweden. For Tanzania and Japan, the
corresponding numbers were 27% and 29% respectively.
The rank ordering of the mean numbers of appropriate
answers for seven
was 80% for USA,
69% for Sweden, 60% for Tanzania, and 48% for Japan.
The remaining four
were the most
difﬁcult symbols for all audiences to comprehend. Here
deﬁnitions differed strongly by symbol and by country.
In this study, it was common for the subjects to give several
meanings for each symbol. For example, the 81 Swedish
subjects gave 20 different interpretations of a symbol with
the shape of a star.
Cochenour and Rezabek (1998) studied the
interpretations of 21 sepulchral symbols. Respondents
showed a wide disparity regarding their ability to
understand the meanings of the symbols. Nineteen percent
of the responses indicated that no meaning at all was
conveyed, while 31% were considered as “understanding
of the intended meaning”. It was concluded that symbols
carry a variety of meanings for different people and when
used alone as a means of visual communication cannot
be expected to always convey a simple and direct meaning.
Cochenour, Rezabek and Westhoff (1999) studied the
interpretations of 12 graphic symbols. In this case, 96
respondents showed a wide disparity in their interpreta-
tions, with as many as 51 different categories of meaning
for a single symbol. The average number of no-meaning
responses was 13.
Nilsson and Lindqvist (1995) examined a random
selection of telecom publications. They browsed about
1,000 pages. From this material Nilsson and Lindqvist
selected 100 pictures and registred about 350 symbols.
This study concluded that:
•A certain meaning is explained with several different
•A certain symbol has several different meanings.
At the end of his book on writing for science and
technology, Kirkman (1992) noted the possibility of using
symbols in international communication (page 155):
Perhaps, since use of words causes so much
difﬁculty in international communication, we
should abandon words wherever possible, and
use icons instead.
Kirkman used the term “icon” in the same meaning as
I use the term “symbol” here. Symbols may very well
become more and more common in international
communication. Kirkman commented (page 156):
I have no doubt that we shall gradually have to
include more and more icons in our presentations
of information, especially in our onscreen
Many pictograms are culturally biased (Mangan, 1978)
and thus arbitrary to those from other cultures. For
example, when using a guidebook with symbols, we often
have to look them up in a key in much the same way as
we look up unfamiliar words in a dictionary. Their iconic
origins may only become apparent after we are aware of
their intended meaning (Waller, 1987). Baron (1981)
reported that iconicity is a surprisingly unimportant factor
in the learning of sign-languages for the deaf, autistic, or
There are many reasons to use symbols. Graphical
symbols can be used effectively in manuals and on screens
to help readers to quickly recognize and
message. Symbols can be used to create an
provide a holistic perspective. This property is utilized in
maps and informative signs as well as in catalogues and
Symbols can be used to illustrate
the spatial and
of different objects or services. One
example is the ﬂoor plan of an exhibition hall with symbols
designating the location of telephones, lavatories,
information booths, and refreshment sites. Another
example is maps with cartographic symbols for objects
and conditions. Symbols can be used to illustrate
relationships and to supply numerical and statistical
information. Many symbols in maps are such examples.
Symbols can be used to
an organization, a
service, or a product. Trademarks and logos are very
common in marketing, advertising, and public relations.
As a rule, promotion begins with a name, followed by the
name and a symbol. Ultimately, the symbol alone sufﬁces.
Examples are McDonald's yellow M, and Shell's scallop.
Symbols can be used in graphics and in image maps for
in databases. Symbols can be used to
behavior in different situations. Numerous examples can
be found in catalogues and timetables. Many symbols are
. Dewar (1999, p. 286) divides symbols
into ﬁve main categories: (1) industrial and occupational
(in the workplace); (2) representing methods (machines,
instructions); (3) management of public places
(transportation, museums, hospitals); (4) knowledge; and
(5) particular activities (sports).
As previously noted many symbols are used for
. Wogalter (1999, p. 94) concluded that warnings
should contain certain elements:
•a signal word such as “Danger” and “Caution” that
enables people to recognize that the message is a
warning, that a hazard is present, as well as providing
information on the hazard level (with “Danger”
signalling more serious and probable injury than
•a description of the hazard, e.g. in the case of a no
diving sign, a statement such as “Shallow water”
provides information about the speciﬁc danger
•a description of the consequences that could occur if
gthe person fails to obey the warning’s directions, e.g.
“You can be permanently paralysed”;
•the directions or instructions, i.e., the speciﬁc actions
that should or should not be done, e.g. “No diving”.
In order to be efffective a warning must reach the
intended audience and make them adopt
behaviour. Several steps are needed here. Initially any
warning, and any symbol, must attract and capture the
of the intended audience, the persons who need
the information. The message must be legible at the
appropriate distance, and must often be legible when seen
for a short period of time under bad lighting conditions.
A driver on a highway may only have a second or two to
read a signpost. Then the message in the warning must
be mentally processed and
correctly by the
intended audience. The action to be taken should be
immediately obvious. Furthermore the message in the
warning must be able to motivate the audience to
with the desired behaviour.
Wogalter pointed out that warnings should have
properties that allow them to be seen in degraded
conditions such as low illumination, smoke or fog. In
addition warnings should be adequately lit by direct light
or by back-lighting and/or have good reﬂectance so that
they are visible under reduced-light conditions.
Design Of Graphic Symbols
Dewar (1999) pointed out that the speciﬁc criteria for
individual symbols or sets of symbols depend on their
application. Legibility distance is essential in the case of
trafﬁc signs and many building signs, but not for symbols
on maps or consumer products. There is a need to have
as possible across different
information systems. Symbols are often composed of
simple graphical elements, such as lines, circles, ovals,
squares, rectangles, triangles, or combinations thereof.
Distinctively shaped letters are often utilized. Regular,
simple, geometrical ﬁgures are identiﬁed more quickly
than complex ones. Keates (1982) noted that
discriminatory responses to map symbols depend on
. The problem of
discrimination is generally more critical in monochrome
maps, in which only contrasts in form and dimensions are
possible for lines and small symbols.
The graphic symbol should be
a distinct contrast to the background. A clear and stable
ﬁgure to ground articulation is essential (Easterby, 1970;
Dewar, 1999). The ﬁgure (“foreground”) should be stable,
i.e. spontaneosly organised as one unit. This is achieved
by close boundaries, appropriate line thickness and any
other graphical means that help the visual system to
organise the ﬁgure as one unit. It is most appropriate to
use silhouette (side) views of certain components such as
vehicles (Dewar, 1999). The graphic symbol should be as
symmetrical as possible. It should appear in an
. A good symbol is designed so it can be used in many
different situations and in many contexts. For example,
the McDonald’s M or “golden arch” is designed to work
in every conceivable size, from a few millimeters high in
a brochure to more than six feet high in outdoor signs. It
is often an advantage that a symbol is
, that is, that
it looks like the real thing it represents. Then it may be
intuitive to the users. In technical and scientiﬁc systems
and documentation, hardware may be symbolised by
squares and rectangles or the like. Software may be
represented by “softer” forms, such as circles or ovals.
Graphic symbols often make use of bright colours to
intensify their meaning – in fact in some instances a change
of colour creates a diametric change of meaning. Common
hues are pure yellow, red, blue, green, white and black,
or combinations of the same. Colour creates instant
impact. It becomes a vital part of the ﬁrst impression
created. Industry employs colour coding in many areas.
The countless wires in a complex cable are instantly traced
by their hue; the colours of knobs and buttons on vehicles
and machinery signify what they control (Dreyfuss, 1972).
However, since many people are colour-blind colour can
only be used to code the information redundantly. Colour
may be combined with shape or position. Complementary
colours contrast and provide a warm – cool effect.
Warnings should have high contrast relative to the
background (Barlow and Wogalter, 1991; Sanders and
McGormick, 1993). They should have large, legible bold-
faced alphanumeric characters (Wogalter, 1999).
Legibility of symbols can be enhanced with the
application of a few simple guidelines:
• Use realistic ﬁgures rather than abstract forms.
•Make important ﬁgures and characters large.
• Eliminate unnecessary elements.
• Use solid ﬁgures, not outline ﬁgures.
•Maximize separation between features in symbols.
•Maximize the luminance between a symbol and its
•Maximize the colour contrast between a symbol and
According to Keates (1982), the use of colour on maps
introduces a large number of variables which can enhance
contrast, and therefore extend the number of perceptual
differences that can be employed in discrimi-nation. The
effect is to
, and therefore to increase the total
range of information which the map can present. Shape
and colour components are often used for designating a
link or relationship between groups of messages. The
recognition of geographical features is much enhanced
when areas are differentiated by hue. At the same time,
complex colour arrangements may raise problems in
discrimination, so that although multi-colour maps
enlarge the graphic possibilities, they also increase the
probability of errors in the judgment of discrimination.
According to Keates (1982), the most common case of
quantitative judgment on maps occurs in the use of
proportional symbols, that is, point or line symbols
constructed to represent speciﬁc quantities.
Many symbols are ofﬁcially recommended by
standardisation bodies like ISO (International Standards
Organisation) and IEC (Commissioin Electrotechnique
Internationale). Symbols are employed in different media.
They are static and immutable in graphical media and may
be more changeable in computer-based media. As noted
in the introduction designers in different countries may
be working on similar problems, and they will often create
different designs. Most, if not all, countries have trafﬁc
signs. In order to study similarities and differences in the
design of a highly restricted message I have analyzed
pedestrian warning and information signs. This study is
presented in the following section.
Pedestrian Crossing Road Signs
Trafﬁc signs and signposts are various devices with
symbols, placed along, beside, or above a highway,
roadway, pathway, or any other route in order to warn,
guide, and regulate the ﬂow of trafﬁc. The symbols may
also be painted on the streets, and sometimes on the walls
of houses. The trafﬁc may include many kinds of motor
vehicles, bicycles, pedestrians, equestrians, and other
travelers. Road signs and signposts may be divided into
four main groups: (1) warning signs, (2) mandatory signs,
(3) prohibitory signs, (4) information signs, and the STOP
sign. Today road signs are manufactured in different
materials such as aluminium, galvanized sheet iron, and
ﬂat or canned panel. The symbols on the signs may be
painted, printed or duplicated in other ways. The motifs
are designed in different ways even if they carry the same
or similar messages.
In communication senders want to communicate
messages or make information sets available to receivers
or rather interpreters. In the case of warning for and
information about pedestrian crossing road signs the city
authorities are the senders. The
pedestrian crossing (Figure 1a)
convey a simple, but
important message to the
: “Look out and slow
down, there is a pedestrian crossing ahead.” This particular
sign is used in Germany and in Luxembourg. The wide
line along the edge of the triangular sign is red. The
triangular area in the middle of the symbol is white. The
three graphical elements representing a person and the ﬁve
graphical elements representing street lines are black. This
symbol is classiﬁed as abstract. The warning sign is
usually triangular, sometimes with soft corners. The actual
symbol consists of a wide line forming a red triangle on
a light background. Graphical elements, dots, lines, and
areas, are combined to form a simple ﬁgurative
representation of a person. Some graphical elements may
also represent street lines showing a pedestrian crossing.
A Warning Sign And An Information Sign
about a pedestrian
crossing (Figure 1b)
convey slightly different messages
for two different groups of receivers. The message to the
and other road-users is: “Look out and slow
down, pedestrians are told to cross the street here.” The
message to the
is: “This is the place where
you should cross the street.” The information sign is
usually rectangular, sometimes with soft corners. The
actual symbol consists of a large blue rectangle with a light
triangle. This particular sign is from Lithuania. The
triangle is white. The four graphical elements representing
a person and the three graphical elements representing
street lines are black. The person appeaers to be running
to the right. This symbol is classified as abstract. In
Lithuania there are also signs with the person moving to
the left. Graphical elements, dots, lines, and areas, are
combined to form a simple ﬁgurative representation of a
person. Some graphical elements may also represent street
lines showing a pedestrian crossing.
In several locations this information sign is replaced
by trafﬁc lights. Trafﬁc lights convey more distinct and
“sharp” instructions to motorists as well as to pedestrians
than pedestrian crossing warning and information road
signs. Here the instructions may be expressed as “Drive
now!,” “Do not drive!,” “Walk now!,” and “Do not walk!”
respectively. The design of trafﬁc lights may vary
substantially. However, design of trafﬁc lights is not
included in this study, nor the sign explaining that children
may be playing alongside the road as well as on the road.
I have studied 52 different pedestrian warning and
information crossing road signs from 32 countries
(Argentina, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Chile, China,
Cyprus, Czech Republic, Estonia, France, Germany,
Ghana, Iceland, India, Ireland, Italy, Jordan, Lithuania,
Luxembourg, Malta, Mexico, Monaco, Norway, Peru,
Poland, Portugal, South Africa, Spain, Sweden,
Switzerland, Turkey, and USA.)
Some of these road signs were brought to Stockholm
for a public exhibition in 1998. The exhibition
Walks in Stockholm
was put together by the graphic
designer Anders Körling as an event during
Stockholm — Cultural City of Europe 1998
. I have taken
photographs of the crossing road signs at this exhibition.
I have also taken photographs during my travels in various
countries. In addition, people have provided me with
photographs of crossing road signs in a few cases. The
pictures presented in this report have been scanned and
retouched using Adobe Photoshop
. The design of
pedestrian warning and information crossing road signs
wary with respect to shape, colours, size, and number of
graphic elements in the symbols.
Pedestrian warning and information crossing road
signs wary with respect to their shape, colours, size, and
the design of the ﬁgurative representations. Differences
in material and in the construction of the signs and
signposts are not discussed here.
. Pedestrian crossing warning and information
road signs vary in shape in different parts of the world.
In Europe warning signs are triangular (Figure 1a), and
information signs are rectangular (Figure 1b). In other
parts of the world the information sign may be rhombic
or circular (Figure 2a and 2b). On the signs from Argentina
and Australia the pictorial symbols are black on yellow
backgrounds without indications of street lines. These
symbols are classiﬁed as pictorial.
Signs From Argentina and Australia
Pedestrian crossing warning and information
road signs vary in colour in different parts of the world.
In Europe warning signs usually have white, black and red
colours (Figure 1a). In Sweden warning signs are yellow,
red and black. In many countries the information signs are
blue, white and black (Figure 1b). In some countries the
colours are white and blue; white, yellow and black; or
yellow and black (Figure 2). The ﬁgurative
representations are usually black, on a white, blue or
Pedestrian crossing warning and information road
signs vary in size in accordance with different situations.
In this sample the smallest sign is 40 cm (Cyprus) and the
largest is 102 cm (Argentina). Most signs are between 55
and 75 cm. Thus the impression of the pictures printed here
corresponds to the impression from viewing the real signs
on a distance of ﬁve to seven meter.
The symbol on pedestrian crossing warning
and information road signs vary to a large extent. Almost
all are different with respect to their design. The person
in the symbol is always
Nowhere is the
ﬁgure representing a woman (Jofs, 1998). Mr. Walker is
abstract graphic symbol
(27), or a
(25). As would be expected, there are no
in this sample of symbols. In one case
(Australia) the sign only shows the lower parts of the legs
and the feet (Figure 2b). For some reason most ﬁgures on
the signs (44) are crossing the street to the left. The
remaining ﬁgures (8) cross in the other direction, to the
right. Estonia and Lithuania have both versions of signs
Most ﬁgures (42) seem to be walking across the street
over to the other side (Figure 3), but some (9) appear to
be running (Figure 1b). In one case (Mexico) the ﬁgure
appears to be standing and waiting for a possibility to cross
the street. In two other symbols from Mexico the person
appears to be walking. Some symbols are very clear and
distinct, others are “blurred” by a large number of
graphical elements. In ﬁgure 3a the person is an abstract
graphic symbol on the warning sign from Malta, and a
pictorial graphic symbol on the right sign, ﬁgure 3b, from
Switzerland. In both cases the person is apparently
walking to the left.
Signs From Malta And Switzerland
The number of graphical elements that are used to build
the Mr. Walker ﬁgure vary (1–4), as the total number of
graphical elements (2–21) in the symbols. Mr. Walker
consists of one graphical element in ﬁgures 2a, 3b, and
4. He is built of two graphical elements in ﬁgure 3a. In
ﬁgure 1a Mr. Walker consists of three graphical elements,
and in ﬁgures 1b and 2b four graphical elements are used.
A Sign From France
form a graphic world of their
own. The number vary to a large degree. In some cases
the street lines may actually confuse people. Figures 2a
and 2b has no street lines. In ﬁgure 1b there are three
graphical elements representing the street lines. There are
ﬁve graphical elements representing the street lines in
ﬁgures 1a and 3b. Seven graphical elements represent the
street lines in ﬁgure 3b, and there are 19 distinct elements
in ﬁgure 4. However, on the sign from France Mr. Walker
consists of only one graphical element. I don’t know to
what extent the number of street lines vary in different
countries. In Sweden there are four graphical elements on
the symbols representing the lines painted on the streets.
The number of painted lines may vary.
There are probably pedestrian crossing road signs in
most cities, at least where there are cars. In accordance
with international conventions and national legislations
on road signs and signals, most road signs have a similar
design. For example, the ofﬁcial manual for signing in the
United States is the
Manual of Uniform Trafﬁc Control
. Warning signs are triangular. Information or
instructional signs are rectangular or rhombic. Prohibitory
signs and mandatory signs are round, but with different
colours. However, the symbols on the signs may differ in
several respects. Every country has its own version, or
rather versions, because some road signs differ between
regions. Some of these signs may be old versions, waiting
to be replaced. There are several requirements that must
be fulﬁlled for road signs to be effective communicators
of information. The
of the symbols, as well as the
in which the signs appear are important factors
for our perception of the message. The abstract or pictorial
graphic symbol on the sign must have good legibility and
be easy to read from a distance. Obviously pedestrian
crossing road signs must be placed in such a way that the
motorists as well as the pedestrians can see them. Signs
should be placed as necessary for safety and proper
regulation of trafﬁc. However, the use of too many signs
within a given location severely reduce the effectiveness
of each individual sign at that speciﬁc location. There is
a distinct risk that we will not see, or pay attention to, some
of the signs.
It is quite obvious that trafﬁc symbols are designed in
many different ways, even when they convey the same or
similar information to people who see them. This may not
seem to be an important issue, since people have to
of all important symbols within their own
society. However, with respect to the fact that international
travel seems to increase all the time, and more people visit
different countries, it would probably be an advantage to
have a “world standard” for a set of basic symbols,
including trafﬁc signs. This would probably reduce the
number of misunderstandings and accidents in the trafﬁc.
This paper supports the assumptions noted in the
introduction. We may conclude that:
1. A specific message may be communicated to the
receiver/s or interpreter/s with several different
2. A specific symbol may be used to communicate
several different messages.
3. People have to learn the meaning of all important
symbols within their own society.
The ﬁrst two points may also be visually represented
in the following two schematic pictures (Figure 5, and
With respect to the design and the use of symbols it may
further be concluded that:
4. Receivers may interpret symbols in many ways.
- Few people share the same understanding of any
- People can usually not guess the meaning of
- There are strong cultural differences in interpreting
the meanings of symbols.
5. The senders will always have to supply explanations
- Symbols should be used in a consistent way.
- A symbol must always have the same meaning
within a speciﬁed context.
6. A good symbol is designed so it can be used in many
different situations and in many contexts. A good
- is simple and clear
- has optimal size and good contrast in form,
dimension, and colour
7. Graphical symbols may be intended to convey
generalities of the same order of abstractness as
verbal terms. In some cases we can see graphical
symbols as visual terms. Graphical symbols may be
- create an overview
- identify information
- illustrate size relationships
- navigate in databases
- provide a holistic perspective
- recognize information
- represent an organization, a service, or a product
- supply information
- supply instructions
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