PRIVACY LABEL — Part III: The Art of Visual Simplicity

Part III of a blog series about privacy, and how we can raise awareness through a universal privacy label.

After establishing a concrete understanding of the current state of privacy, why it matters, and how we can rank it in our previous two posts, our next phase of research was sparked by another question: how can we translate our privacy ranking system into an informative, aesthetically pleasing visual?

This post explores an overview of existing visual communication systems and our insights into them.


Everyday we’re unconsciously exposed to an endless amount of visual stimulation: signs, stickers, and more. On the internet, we experience the same, only digitally through pop-ups, advertisements, etc.

Examples of visual stimulation on the streets of Utrecht, Netherlands.

Existing Visual Communication Systems.

Before designing a privacy awareness system of our own, we researched, organized, and analyzed existing visual communication systems to look closer at how and why they work. Below are a handful of some of the most noteworthy, powerful, and/or innovative solutions from our research:

  1. Creative Commons: One of the first systems we thought of for several reasons: This non-profit organization has produced several copyright licenses for content creators to easily share their work. Each license comes with a set of visual symbols backed by a one-page explanation of what the license and symbols mean. Creative Commons is successful as an online and offline visual system because it simplifies the complexity of copyright licenses for all to understand and use.
  2. Stock Tickers: Extremely simple and intuitive symbols which depict whether stocks are increasing or decreasing.
  3. Public Transportation Wayfinding: Airports, train stations, and other public transit spaces need to visually communicate where to locate certain platforms, restrooms, or other places to people who might not share a common language or culture.
  4. ATM Buttons: By using three simple colors like a traffic light, these buttons, often found on ATMs around the world, allow people who may not understand the local language to still navigate and use the machine.
  5. Laundry Care Symbols: These pictograms attached to clothing indicate the best way to clean them.
  6. Rank a Brand: “One of Europe’s largest brand-comparison sites on sustainability and corporate social responsibility.” It’s powered by a team of volunteers who research into brand sustainability and social responsibility.
  7. Emojis: Even though they’re extremely popular now, emojis were originally invented in Japan in 1999 as a simpler way to convey thoughts and feelings without having to type out full Japanese characters. Emojis were quickly copied to many mobile operating systems before spreading all over the world to become the cultural staple they are today.
  8. Drug Testing Kits: With drug related deaths and a flood of new “research chemicals” on the rise, companies like Bunk Police sell drug testing kits. Most of their kits contain a “liquid that changes colors when you combine it with a very small amount of your substance.” This allows anyone wanting to reduce harm to easily test their substance by matching their substance’s color change with their kit’s provided booklet.
  9. Uber Beacon: “A device that goes on a driver’s windshield and uses color-pairing technology to help drivers and riders more quickly connect at night, particularly at crowded venues. With this technology, riders can personalize their pickup by selecting from an endless number of colors for the Beacon to glow on their driver’s vehicle.”
  10. European Union Energy Label: “The label rates products from dark green (most efficient) to red (least efficient).”
Ten of the most noteworthy, powerful, and/or innovative visual communication systems from our findings.

Insights Gained From Existing Visual Communication Systems.

After evaluating these and additional examples, we uncovered that the real power in visually communicating any type of meaning comes down to a balance of applying or combining simple elements like typography, spacing, colors, and symbols.

Prior to creating our own visual communication system for privacy awareness, our last phase of research was seeing what products already existed within this realm. Researching online, we found many projects from the early 2000s up until this year.


An Overview of Existing Privacy Awareness Products.

Below are a handful of the most recent examples on the market from our research including icon schemes, short notice certifications, and browser extensions which all aim to simplify and better inform users about service’s privacy policies and/or terms of service:


Insights Gained From Existing Privacy Awareness Products.

Overall, from past to present, we noticed two consistent trends:

  1. The simpler the better: Just as shown in DuckDuckGo’s Privacy Extension (shown furthest right), each attempt has simplified understanding privacy policies, terms of service, and/or the personal implications of data privacy
  2. Avoid further complicating the problem: Many of the solutions provide users with a translation of privacy policies or terms of service but don’t empower users to act any more than without the solution

While compiling this timeline, we stumbled upon two compilations and analyses of many already existing products: “Privacy Short Notice Design” by Travis Pinnick at TrustArc and “The Use of Privacy Icons and Standard Contract Terms for Generating Consumer Trust and Confidence in Digital Services” by the Centre for Copyright and New Business Models in the Creative Economy (CREATe).

These reports helped us to verify our observed trends about past products as well as gain new insights:

  1. The simpler the better: More people are able to grasp a complicated concept when it’s communicated as simply as possible;
  2. Avoid further complicating the problem: Many of the solutions don’t empower users anymore than without them;
  3. Provide a meaningful value: Labels like those for energy appliances have proven successful because when people shop for new appliances, the energy rating is one of the many other factors like price that influence their decision;
  4. If it works, it works: Laundry labels have proven successful because of clear industry and consumer incentives rather than legal compulsion.

With these four key takeaways in mind and the rest of our foundational research wrapped up, the next step was concepting and designing our own system. Reflecting back on all existing products we covered, they each addressed privacy online, but how could create a new product which included online concerns as well as offline?


Concerned about your privacy? Read more in our series exploring the current state of privacy in Part I, what privacy is, why it matters and how we rank it in Part II, and designing a universal privacy awareness label in Part IV.

The ‘Demystifying the Smart City’ research program is supported by the Creative Industries Fund NL.