Enterprise Language Solutions has an interesting brief by Yves Lang on how to use symbols and icons in localization.
Cultural differences challenge the design and implementation of icons and symbols for international use. What is meaningful and natural for one group may be ambiguous, unintelligible, or arbitrary for another. Fundamentally, communication is subjective, as a person’s perceptions are influenced by their environment.
Since their start in the Olympics, the number of icons has grown remarkably. The US Bureau of Land Management has it’s own set of “international” symbols and rules for their use, and the ISO is looking to standardize symbols and icons internationally.
Oddly, as Enterprise Language Solutions points out, there’s no good way to symbolize language. Flags are often use, but they have real drawbacks:
Flags are nationalistic, and represent ideals, boundaries, and political beliefs, but do not represent a language. In the process of selecting the most appropriate flag, you will inevitably offend someone because you left them out. The best practice with all flags, national symbols, maps, and so forth is to avoid them as much as possible.
What else should designers be aware of when creating symbols? Here’s the list according to Enterprise Language Solutions:
- Avoid single-letter concepts, as confusion will be introduced through translation
- Avoid graphic elements with text
- Avoid graphics depicting human body elements and body language
- Avoid graphics depicting humor, puns, and slang
- Avoid graphics depicting physical environments
- Avoid graphics depicting ethnic, racial, political, and religious environments
- Avoid graphics depicting gender-specific elements
- Avoid graphics depicting images of animals
- Avoid graphics depicting sexual and violent elements
- Avoid graphics depicting regional conventions, such as reading direction, date/time, and monetary elements