Posted by Yvonne on 16.12.2009

Photo: Mental Floss Blog


We came across this blog containing mistranslated signs from around the world. Have a look and have a laugh.

Actually last year we did some research testing into the meaning of pictograms for people with Limited English Proficiency (LEP). We needed to find out which pictogram design would work best, or at all. What we discovered was, what might be obvious and straight forward for one person isn’t always that clear for someone else from a different cultural background.

One participant thought below pictogram represented a sailing boat in Sydney Harbour, and not the letterbox it is supposed to depict:


Another participant thought this represented a birthday cake, not a reception area:


The truth is, there’s not really a right or wrong answer: Our research reveals that most pictograms should be supported with text, in plain English, as understanding particularly symbolic pictograms is a learned behaviour.(see below)


Below are ID/Lab’s research conclusions:

In order to provide a clear analysis of the pictogram test results it is necessary to start with a definition of terms. There are two distinct types of pictogram, iconic and symbolic.

Icons are drawn as a graphic representation of the subject matter, and need to be read and understood in order to derive meaning (for example the lift icon). Theoretically, previous exposure to the pictogram is not required for comprehension, but the action it depicts needs to be known.

Symbols on the other hand do not attempt to graphically represent the subject matter, but must be learnt. They are recognised in the same way we recognise the characters in an alphabet (for example the information ‘i” or the man or woman used for the toilet sign).

During the pictogram testing it became clear that many of the test subjects struggled to understand what were thought to be relatively simple ‘iconic’ images. Conversely, the images with the highest levels of comprehension were those based on ISO images commonly used in a range of public environments, regardless of the level of ‘symbolic’ abstraction in their rendering.

The conclusion drawn from this observation is that the majority of people lack the visual literacy to interpret pictograms based on icons accurately, and that symbolic pictograms provide a much higher level of comprehension.

What is also apparent is that there will always be those that are unable to understand both language and pictograms however simple they may seem. As a result, the greatest level of comprehension will be achieved by ensuring that pictograms are always supported with text, in simple English, at the appropriate size and contrast.

PS: With a number of staff in our office for whom English is a second language, we know from experience that translating, spelling and comprehension of words can be challenging at times……..