Pictograms taking care of business

 The other day, Ingrid Piller’s “Language on the Move” blog showed a number of signs that are posted in restrooms in Australia.  The purpose of these signs is to explain, without text, how to use a Western toilet.  This is a harder task than those of us who are accustomed to such devices might assume.  The international symbols for “Men,” “Women,” and “Wheelchair Accessible” that often mark public restrooms appear on these signs in a variety of non-self-explanatory positions.     

I’ve always been intrigued by these international symbols, or pictograms.  I’m not the only one.  Here‘s a “Flickr Hive Mind” thing of images of the “Wheelchair Accessible” pictogram.  For example, here‘s the wheelchair pictogram carrying a flower; here is the same pictogram some distance from a family group; here are two of them, apparently in an embrace; here are two about to go their separate ways, though still facing the same direction.  Also on Flickr, we can see a sign that appears to invite women accompanied by tiny people using wheelchairs, and one that appears to invite men accompanied by tiny people using wheelchairs.

I’ve found the same pictogram having still other adventures.  For example, here‘s the accessibility symbol shouting through a megaphone:

Here‘s the international symbol for falling out of your wheelchair:

If it bothers you that the accessibility pictogram is unisex, you might like to see this on the Paris Metro:

The other pictograms are livelier than you might think, as well. 

Here‘s an argument against unisex restrooms:

Here, Mr & Mrs Pictogram put on some clothes.  If this is a fair representation of their fashion sense, I can see why we are usually shown only their silhouettes:

This picture has a similar esthetic to the one above, but makes its statement more bluntly:

Perhaps these “branded” women could benefit from the sort of sisterhood illustrated in this image

Here‘s a crowd of men’s symbols:

I wonder which direction they’re facing.

This fellow seems to be in trouble:

Perhaps he’d envy this kinsman of his:

This one seems to be having a better time:

Here, a mosaic of international symbols makes up a giant face:

This is the international symbol for Muslim prayer room.  I think it needs work.  The woman’s headscarf looks like a device that’s keeping her head taped to her shoulders:


  1. believer1

     /  May 8, 2010

    I really like the picture of the person holding the flower. It’s too bad they don’t decorate the signs by having the people hold things, dance, etc. As for the gender-neutral thing, I like it. Sometimes I think we’re too hung up on gender as it is. If I saw the wheelchair sign being portrayed as obviously male or female, I would wonder, are they trying to say that only males or only females can use this exit? What is an argument for not liking the gender-neutral signs, anyway?

  2. acilius

     /  May 8, 2010

    I can think of two reasons people might give for not liking the gender-neutral wheelchair sign. #1, it’s often paired with a “Man” or “Woman” sign to mark public restrooms. So you see three symbols together, Woman, Man, Wheelchair User. It’s as if wheelchair users are some third category, sexless and apart.

    Also, saome might question whether any sign in our society can really be “gender-neutral.” Maybe the way our society works, people will stick a gender label on any symbol they see. So, the “Woman” symbol wears a skirt, the “Man” symbol doesn’t, and the wheelchair-accessible symbol doesn’t. If as you suggest we’re so hung up on gender, that might be all the prompting we need to see the wheelchair pictogram as male.

    I haven’t checked, I don’t know whether the Paris Metro stations where the wheelchair pictogram in a skirt marks the women’s restrooms also have a pictogram of a woman standing to mark the same restroom. But it iccurs to me they wouldn’t have to. If there are distinctive male wheelchair user/ female wheelchair user signs, then they would be all you would need. The only time you’d need the standing pictogram would be to signify non-wheelchair accessible spaces. That way you’d switch from a code where wheelchair accessibility is the deviation and inaccessibility is the norm to a code where accessibility is the norm and inaccessibility is the deviation.

  3. Wrt computer icons, I tend to say “If we use an English label, only the English speakers understand it; if we use an icon, no-one can understand it.”—which more or less holds for pictograms in general, once a very small core is left. Notably, even some that may seem self-explanatory to a Westerner may cause problems for someone from another cultural sphere, e.g. the knife-and-fork symbol (at least in somewhat earlier times). Many others must first be learnt or deciphered even by a Westerner.

    Pictograms may be a valuable help, but they should not replace a sensible text in the leading language(s) among the passengers.

  4. acilius

     /  May 9, 2010

    @Michael Eriksson: Thanks for the comment! Those are excellent points. The signs in Ingrid Piller’s post are good examples of attempts to make pictograms do more work than it is reasonable to expect of them.

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