Symbols Speak Universal Language With Local Flair

When we live in spaces where we read, write and speak our native language, we sometimes take the ability to function in the environment--without difficulty--for granted. Traveling in another country, however, is at least one example of the barriers that language potentially creates; navigating new places while simultaneously immersed in a different language and culture can be a humbling experience. And when we need help or find ourselves lost, how do we find our bearings? Thankfully, we have symbols, which transcend language and even cultural context. In other words, there is an existing visual language that we can quickly learn to read and interpret regardless of where we are in the world.

AIGA transportation symbols

Just as typography is an integral part of design, no discussion about wayfinding would be complete without mentioning symbols. Because they provide a way to quickly and efficiently communicate information in its most basic form, they play an important role in helping us navigate unfamiliar places. Public venues, hospitals, airports, highways and even the villages that are constructed during the Olympics employ universal symbols—usually in the form of pictograms (that is, symbols that represent an object, word or concept)—to orient visitors.

One need only think about how frequently each of us utilizes arrows on a daily basis to appreciate this universal, visual language that we share.

Lance Wyman—one of my design idols and a superstar in the design world—is more commonly known for the system of pictograms he developed with Manuel Villazón and Mathias Goeritz for the 1968 Olympics in Mexico. Beyond serving as information graphics and beautifully stylized images in and of themselves, the symbols are imbued with Mexican cultural and historical references that make them simultaneously global and unique to a specific place and time. Even today, the average person can easily read the system of icons and understand what they mean.

The American Institute of Graphic Arts, in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Transportation, has also played a significant role with regard to symbols, helping to standardize pictograms that are used internationally:

“Prior to this effort, numerous international, national and local organizations had devised symbols to guide passengers and pedestrians through transportation facilities and other sites of international exchange. While effective individual symbols had been designed, there was no system of signs that communicated the required range of complex messages, addressed people of different ages and cultures and were clearly legible at a distance.”

Hablamos Juntos and the Society for Environmental Graphic Design are two additional groups working together to develop a system of symbols, specifically for wayfinding in healthcare facilities here in the United States. Throughout this process, designers are proving their collective ability to develop graphics that are practical and accessible but with the kind of nuance that makes them beautiful. (Yes! Symbols can be beautiful!)

Here in Goshen, universal symbols and an accompanying waryfinding system aren’t necessarily going to play the same role as they do at, say, an airport such as O’Hare International. However, in making our city a place that visitors enjoy coming to, it’s in our best interest to consider how we develop a visual language that is both unique to who and where we are, yet welcoming to the “outsiders” in our midst.