We all recognize this symbol:
Regardless of where we are from or what cultural background we are familiar with, we most definitely will recognize this symbol anywhere and will intuitively know what it stands for. In a way, this pictogram could be considered the epitome of intuitive design, as it even transcends language – no words are needed to clarify its meaning, and it thus becomes accessible and understandable to anyone in the world. Throughout most of the places I had traveled in up to now, I had been used to seeing these signs anywhere, especially in public places such as airports, metros, and places with lots of transit. However, during my trip to Istanbul and layover in Saudi Arabia, I came across several signs that I found quite interesting, as they veered away from the standard AIGA symbol.
In the Jeddah airport, for instance, these were the toilet signs they had:
While in Istanbul, several places maintained the image of women wearing a dress, but in different styles.
Coming across these various signs was quite interesting, as it demonstrates how different institutions might choose to veer away from the “standard” bathroom symbols and instead produce more stylized variations while maintaining the core concept (such as a woman wearing a dress and a man wearing a suit) to keep their meaning. On the other hand, like in the case of the Jeddah airport’s bathroom signs, some might choose to design and use more culturally appropriate or reflective symbols. Both these cases show how design reflects culture, even in the most minuscule and overlooked of ways as in a bathroom sign.
In these two cases, the signs’ design seemed to work effectively, as neither did I or any of the other people that I saw in these locations have trouble deciphering what they meant. However, upon further thought, regardless of how well they fit with the room, or how culturally appropriate they are, could these symbols really be understood by anyone, regardless of background? If a person that did not know English or Arabic come upon the Jeddah airport’s signs, would they be able to instantly tell what they meant? Lets consider the bathroom signs in China, for example:
Above are the usual components of a bathroom sign found in China and Taiwan. In most central areas of China, such as Shanghai and Beijing, these would be accompanied by the word “TOILET”. However, in less centric areas, some signs usually just have the Chinese character for male or female written, without the stick figure along with it. For instance, in a metro station in Taipei, I was presented with only the Chinese characters, which led to momentary confusion before I distinguished which one was which. This is another example of the way such signs can be adjusted according to culture, while potentially sacrificing their intuitive potential for all audiences.
Now, how do we remedy these two cases? What do we make of the standard design, which although extremely intuitive has also sparked controversy due to its arguably conservative depiction of set gender roles, and other alternate designs that might be less intuitive, yet perhaps more culturally appropriate? Some places have explored different solutions through a mixture of creativity and humor:
Even a new campaign, “It Was Never a Dress”, sought different design solutions for their initiative, which seeks to “shift perceptions and assumptions about women” (ItWasNeverADress.com).
Unfortunately, I am still unable to come to a set solution, or balance between the two cases I set before. However, perhaps the designs above can serve as examples of how there is always room for improvement, especially in design. Even widespread, universally known symbols such as the standard bathroom sign can be re-designed and improved with enough wit and creativity.