Signage Symbols for Wayfinding Identification

Signage Symbols for Wayfinding Identification can be found virtually anywhere that people in public spaces and built environments. Because usage of signage symbols, or pictograms, is so commonplace, it is easy to forget that they serve a purpose. But for millions around the globe who rely on their presence for information and direction on a daily basis, their ubiquity is vital to people’s ability to understand and navigate the world around them.

Whether it’s due to disability, illiteracy, a language barrier or simply for efficiency reasons, this reliance on symbols influences signage in a variety of ways.  But given the fact that we sometimes take them for granted, how much do we really know about symbols? To understand how they can be properly used in wayfinding, we investigate the history of symbols, how they are created now, who creates them, and the standards involved in their application, most notably in the healthcare industry.

The History of Symbols

Though we tend to think of symbols merely as the visual representation of objects, collectively they form a kind of language.  This was especially true of the first pictograms in history: cave drawings.  Before the existence of written or spoken languages, these images served as a way for ancient peoples to communicate with each other.  As language developed over time and technological advancements made travel easier, pictograms became important in the sharing of information between disparate groups of people.

Modern Usage of Symbols

English is widely considered to be the international language of business, but it is much more difficult for people who aren’t fluent in a common language to effectively communicate with one another, even if casually.  As a result, universally recognized symbols can be especially useful in fostering conversation in these situations.  Also, pictograms can be instrumental in relaying information in poorer countries.  For example, in a country with a high illiteracy rate, they can be placed on ballots in order to distinguish electoral candidates running for office.

Who Creates Symbols and How

As the world grows and evolves, so too does the need for new pictograms.  Though the creation of symbols was an informal practice in the past, private design firms are now largely responsible for developing original sets.  They work in conjunction with the World Intellectual Property Organization, a division of the United Nations, to deliver finished content to the International Organization of Standardization (ISO) for approval. Standardization of symbols constitutes a very small fraction of what the ISO does.  Nevertheless, the organization did publish a guide outlining specific symbols that could be used as a means of informing the international public.

Standards for Symbols

Despite the ISO publication, standards for the implementation of symbols vary in the United States from state to state.  Individual cities, too, have adopted different rules for wayfinding symbols.  However, the Americans with Disabilities Act does set basic standards for the appearance of signs throughout the country, the specifics of which can be accessed here.

Universal Symbols in Hospitals

Though a federal standard for wayfinding symbols has yet to be introduced, an exciting new development that will positively affect the healthcare industry has just been announced.  The result of an eight-year collaboration between private, independent and university researchers, a guide entitled Universal Symbols in Health Care will be released in August.  We first brought the blueprint for this plan to your attention in late 2010, but the project was far from complete at that time.  Now, with it having been completed, the group estimates that 50 million Americans will benefit from the comprehensive system.

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