The Challenge of Constructing a Universal Language
The concept of a universal symbolic language—a visual vocabulary that anyone from any culture, any country, and any walk of life can understand—is of the utmost importance when it comes to wayfinding in physical spaces, especially in environments that play host to people from around the world. Therefore, in 1974, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) worked with designers from the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) to codify such a universal graphic system for the creation of signage in airports and other transportation facilities with international user groups. The result was a core set of 50 standard symbols.
Unfortunately, when it comes to wayfinding in virtual spaces, we are not nearly so close to such agreement. Free market competition, however, has led to some de facto standards. The shopping cart symbol you’ll find when visiting www.joyo.com—the Amazon Web presence in China—is the same as the one you’ll find on the American and British Amazon sites and most other e-commerce properties. Chinese shoppers may never have used a Western-style shopping cart at a bricks-and-mortar grocery store, but they still know what the symbol means. Similarly, Americans expect that clicking the red octagonal icon on their browser toolbar will prevent an unwanted Web page from loading, as do Filipinos who have never seen that particular kind of Stop sign in the physical world. And 30-somethings expect that clicking a floppy disk icon will save their work, as do teenagers who have never used such physical media to store their data.
While all of these examples illustrate the cross-cultural and cross-generational nature of our developing iconic language, they also demonstrate some of the difficulties inherent in designing symbols for the digital domain, which make standardization a challenge. Unlike the DOT/AIGA symbols for traditional wayfinding, digital icons have no corresponding physical object for a user to locate—no staircase, no bathrooms, and no baggage lockers. Since digital icons have developed their meanings separate from the objects they represent, there is no real-world object that defines its meaning, only the idea of a type of user interaction. So, for every icon we all can agree upon, there are at least as many about which there is no agreement and that, therefore, remain in flux. A perusal of the operating system icons on the digital interface archive GUIdebook reveals the great variety of symbols that we have used to communicate similar concepts and tasks. Over time, in the Windows operating system alone, the symbol representing a user’s address book has changed from a card file to a tabbed card file to an actual address book. In other operating systems, icons representing an address book vary from a phone book to a Rolodex® card to a composition book with an @ sign emblazoned on the cover.
As more aspects of our lives migrate to digital environments—as applications and documents accumulate on our PCs, phones, and PDAs—it would make sense to deliberately undertake the development of a universal symbolic language for use in that sphere. From a wayfinding perspective, this would benefit users, making it far easier for them to switch between platforms and devices. But how could we come to an agreement? What would a framework for icon standardization look like?
In general, standards for the use of icons have not gained the broad adoption that would reinforce their usage. The International Standards Organization (ISO) issued guidelines ISO/IEC 11581, Parts 1-6 on “User System Interfaces and Symbols—Icon Symbols and Functions” and ISO/IEC 13251, “Collection of Graphical Symbols for Office Equipment,” which have gained acceptance as the standard references in the realm of software development. However, they are not common knowledge to many designers who work in the digital space. Some think these standards are unwieldy and unnecessarily restrictive.