As I was seated on a train from Budapest to Vienna last week, midway through a holiday in Central Europe, I heard passengers from all over the world speaking in different languages, with Hungarian and German being the majority. Since I do not speak either of those, I relied heavily on the icons on the train to point me to the right areas. It’s truly incredible what icons have done for travel — it has allowed travelers to transcend language barriers and have a more enjoyable and efficient experience. In the UX Design world, we can learn from how humans use icons in the real world to better incorporate them in our products in a way that is natural yet impactful.
Icons are an essential part of wayfinding in a confusing or foreign place. They help us orient ourselves, feel comfortable and confident, and reduce our cognitive load so we can make quicker decisions. This is not just about catering to tourists — much like designing for accessibility can make the UX better for everyone, so can adding icons to a product or experience to help everyone work more efficiently. It’s so much better when a traveler can find their own way easily than when they constantly ask the staff or other passengers where they should go.
After thinking about the importance of icons, I went searching for them on the train. Since it was run by an Austrian company, most of the text was written in German and subtitled in English. Icons were used profusely throughout the train, I must have spotted at least 50 different icons just on my single train car. A lot of the icons seemed like they were part of a national standard set of icons that are likely used throughout the country.
To improve their ease of understanding, it seems that most icons are placed on or as close as possible to the object or area they are referring to, borrowing from the Gestalt Principle of Proximity. I also noticed their sizing was scaled up or down depending on the size of the object. For example, this trash bin has a small icon directly on top of the lid to indicate what it’s for.
The icons also used color in a helpful way, but could still be understood without it, which is important for accessibility. Green was used to indicate a quiet area and a defibrillator which are considered positive concepts, but also a bit confusingly for an SOS call — perhaps they’re calling to mind the green phone icon from an iPhone. Red was used to indicate a fire extinguisher which is a common pairing, and as the ubiquitous red slash on signs like “no smoking”, indicating a negative concept. The rest of the icons use a consistent color scheme with blue and white, with some using a small yellow outline. They are all completely 2D with no perspective or dimension that could confuse travelers. They use round corners to give them a more approachable look.
There were a couple of icons that could be a bit confusing on their own— like the use of “WC” instead of a pictorial depiction of a toilet or the M/F person icon. Hopefully, if someone is traveling in Europe, they have done a bit of research and know the phrase “water closet”, but it’s not a given. Inside the restroom, the sink and hand dryer icons are a bit abstract on their own, using basic lines to indicate water and air. But in the context of being inside the toilet, they are easily understood as the users’ expectations are that there will be a sink and some way to dry their hands. These icons are also placed on light-up buttons that invite interaction, which implies that something will happen when pressed.
What do all these icons indicate to travelers? They assist with wayfinding, giving instructions, and communicating important information. Wayfinding included telling us where the toilet, café, or defibrillator is. The instructions given are usually how an object or area are supposed to be used, like the trash can or the luggage area (you can put your large bags here). Communicating important information on a train includes what coach you’re supposed to be on (first-class or economy), which seat you’re in, whether the seat is reserved, if it’s a quiet area and what that means, what stops will be coming up, etc.
Human iconography has been around for thousands of years, so it’s nothing new for us to use and interpret symbols in our daily lives. The modern travel icons likely emerged in the 20th century, springing from the isotope movement in the 1920s. This article explains how modern icons originated right here in Austria with Otto Neurath’s Isotope Institute. He created common icons that were simple to understand, in hopes of improving his society. This likely spurred similar movements all around the world, as there are now many standard sets of icons in each country. Although there can definitely be cultural differences and misunderstandings, icon sets often overlap quite nicely around the world so travelers can find their way to baggage claim, restrooms, or exits.
Icons are so ubiquitous around the world, that we often don’t even realize we’re scanning and interpreting them. Icons are an essential part of finding our way in the world and knowing what to do in a situation or with an object in a quick, frictionless way. It’s no wonder that so many of our websites and apps in 2019 use icons to help the user navigate. The next time you’re in a foreign place, take note of their iconography and see if it differs from what you’re used to in your home. It can be fascinating to see how different concepts are depicted in different places, and how quickly you can understand their meaning.