Symbol Design Debate: Abstract Versus Representational

By Bethany Savage | 11th Feb 2016

All graphical symbols are abstract to a degree, meaning we’re meant to glean a real-life message from what they depict. When it comes to their use in  product safety labels, more representational symbols can help with the comprehension of safety messages. It can be argued that the more specific to the situation the symbol can be, the better chance the intended communication will occur.

As an example, symbols that show human interaction with a hazard give viewers more appreciation for the need to take precautions to avoid it. Such symbols let us see the consequences of not obeying a safety message. Look at the two symbols shown here. The left one is the registered ISO 7010 safety symbol for “counter rotating rollers.” Compare it to the right one, the safety symbol that includes a human hand entrapped in rollers. This latter symbol provides the viewer with a personal context which may not only make the potential hazard more understandable, but, psychologically, elicits a higher degree of motivation in the viewer to avoid the hazard.

This abstract versus representational symbol design discussion is a timely topic as the member countries on the  ISO standards committee in charge of registering safety symbols, ISO/TC 145 subcommittee 2, are currently debating the preference for general, more abstract safety symbols versus accepting a wide array of symbols that are more specific and particular in the way they depict a hazardous situation.

For more insight on this symbol design debate, be sure to read our CEO Geoffrey Peckham’s  latest article in In Compliance Magazine, part of a series on current trends in safety symbol design.

Stay tuned here on the Clarion blog for the latest in news and best practices for your product safety labels.