I am one of those people that enjoy making up ridiculous stories about icons that make no sense. I do the same with signs. (“Slow Children” is still one of my favorite signs in the whole world. What does that really mean? Slow down for children…or these children are slow?) The thing that makes these stories funny is that they’re plausible. Icons and symbols can offer a lot in a small amount of context, but they’re very rarely perfect. Sometimes, it even feels like you need to be a part of a secret society before you can even begin to understand what any symbols mean.
Have you ever seen laundry symbols before? They’re another language in itself. They’re basically Wingdings from your old Windows ’95. This image is from a skein of yarn I bought in a nearby hobby shop in California.
They’re nifty because they fit rather handily on a shirt tag, but reading these symbols are impossible without knowing what each thing means first. The top left icon tells you about how you should wash the garment. The water should be a clue. Dots are used to let you know how cold or warm the water should be. Weirdly, no dots mean you use a “normal” cycle, which apparently means “the hottest available water”; one dot means cold, two mean warm, three mean hot…and the dots actually go up to six. These all have temperature ranges paired with them. (To be frank, the only one I could figure out was that I shouldn’t iron this thing.)
I roamed around town and my room to find symbols like this, and it got me thinking: how much of this is internationally recognized? Which one are westernized, and which ones are universal? How can we start thinking about iconography that works for all cultures? Take, for example, these recycling symbols.
The top one is from Germany. The bottom two are from Japan. While I might not know what each of these mean (I do know the Japanese, at least), the cyclic motion of the arrows already has me thinking, “Oh, these are recycling symbols.” While I might not know what PAP stands for in the German one, I know that the item is likely recyclable and I’ll just toss it with similar items. Japan, on the other hand, is serious about their recycling. The words on the bottom tell you which parts should be recycled where.
Between these two, I personally think that the recycling arrows are way more universal than laundry symbols. But I need to take into account that I live in San Francisco, and it’s a generally green place. Would someone from another country, or even another US state, know what to do with these?
I looked at some yarn that I picked up from Japan. No laundry symbols. Hm. I looked at another skein of yarn that my friend got for me from Reyjavik. The symbols are very similar, but not quite the same.
I sketched these and other icons on Post-It notes, pondering about the weight of definition that icons carry.
I love how icons can convey so much information in such a small amount of space. Some things make a lot of sense, but stepping back a bit, did it always make sense? Or did we become accustom to it? Did three curved arrows in the shape of a triangle always mean recycling?
There are a lot of articles on icon design, and many of them tell you to design according to convention. I agree with this to a point, but eventually, you might need to make an icon that becomes convention. That’s when you really start telling stories.