Universal Symbol Systems for Cross-cultural Audiences: New Methods for Design and Testing

By Kathryn McCormick, Lisa Fontaine and Oscar Fernández.

Published by The Humanities Collection

Format Price
Article: Print $US10.00
Article: Electronic $US5.00

This paper documents a national design collaboration to devise new methods for analyzing, designing and testing new graphic symbols for use with Limited English Populations (LEP) in health care environments. Symbol systems have tremendous potential for cross-cultural communication, as is evident in airports, Olympic venues, and other places with diverse user groups. But their extreme simplicity also creates the possibility of miscommunication. Symbol design is a challenging process in any circumstance, even when the audience shares common culture and experiences, since their decoding of simple graphic elements is dependent on clear, unambiguous visual references. How do cultural differences add to this challenge? How do they affect an audience’s interpretation of a visual message symbol? A consortium of 4 university design schools set out to determine which visual elements and factors are universally understood by different cultures, and which are culturally specific, by devising new symbol design and analysis methods.

This research was conducted to assist Hablamos Juntos, an organization that attempts to improve LEP communication in healthcare settings. For this project, 20 new medical symbols were developed. Upon completion of the new symbol designs and critical selection of candidates, user testing was conducted in LEP environments.

While these design and testing methods would be useful in any symbol design process, they are especially vital for cross-cultural communication. Minimal research has been conducted or published that examines the specific components that make a symbol work (or not work) across cultures. Future design teams can implement the methods devised here, so that their symbols are not based on trial and error, or on faulty assumptions about other cultures.

This design/research collaboration was quite likely the first of its kind across U.S. design schools.

Keywords: Symbol Design, Symbol Systems, Cultural Communication

International Journal of the Humanities, Volume 9, Issue 1, pp.293-324. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 3.269MB).

Professor Kathryn McCormick

Associate Professor, Art and Design, California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, California, USA

Kathryn (Katie) McCormick is an associate professor of Graphic Design, and area coordinator of the program at California Polytechnic State University. She previously taught at the University of Cincinnati, in both the School of Architecture and the School of Design (2000-2003). With a Masters degree in Architecture and a Bachelors degree in Design, McCormick has worked on a variety of professional projects that cross disciplines. Major clients include FRCH Design Worldwide (Cincinnati Ballpark, Fifth Third Bank), Kolar Design (UC “Mainstreet” project, Arena Crossing), University of Cincinnati (DAAP Gallery, DAAP Fashion Show, Center for the Study of Practice), The Children’s Museum and Seaburg Corporation of Portland, Oregon, and the City of Portland. She worked as a designer for Adidas America (Portland, Oregon) from 1996-1999. Projects included the New York Yankees, Kobe Bryant, NBA Street, The World Cup and The Women’s World Cup, The Boston Marathon, ATP and Newsweek Tennis Championships, and athletic programs of several universities, including the University of Tennessee, Notre Dame, Nebraska, and Northwestern.

Lisa Fontaine

Associate Professor of Graphic Design, Department of Art and Design, Iowa State University, Ames, IA, USA

Associate Professor Lisa Fontaine has taught graphic design at Iowa State University for 22 years. Professor Fontaine teaches courses in branding, symbol design, exhibit design, and environmental graphics. She is a co-founder of Iowa State University’s new MA program in Environmental Graphic Design, and a member of the Education Committee for the Society of Environmental Graphic Design. Current research includes icon and symbol development for interspecies communication with language-competent bonobos. Professor Fontaine has previously presented research papers in the US, Mexico and Europe on issues such as symbology, cultural criticism in graphic design, green design, and downtown design. Professor Fontaine directs downtown revitalization initiatives for Iowa communities through the Institute for Design Research and Outreach.

Oscar Fernández

Associate Professor of Graphic Design, School of Design, University of Cincinnati, Cincinnati, OH, USA

Oscar Fernández is an associate professor in the School of Design, University of Cincinnati. His research interests and experience are in visual identity systems, information design, design history and comprehensive wayfinding programs. Professor Fernández previously held adjunct and associate professorships of design at Carnegie Mellon University, the Maine College of Art, The Ohio State University and Montana State University. His more than 25 years of professional experience have included visual communication design work for architecture firms as well as design director roles at the Wexner Center for the Arts, VIA, Fitch Worldwide and Eyethink, which he helped launch. His award-winning work has been included in the Society of Environmental Graphic Design, SEGD Awards 2006, GRAPHIS Posters 2002, Typography 20, GRAPHIS Design Annual 2000 and the American Institute of Graphic Arts, AIGA Graphic Design Annual 19. In 1997, a retrospective of his work was exhibited at Ohio University’s Trissolini Gallery in Athens, Ohio. One of five American graphic designers, along with five Cuban, he participated in an AIGA Cross-Cultural Design Program. The concluding collaborative work was exhibited during the VI International Digital Art Exhibit and Colloquium in Havana, Cuba, in summer 2004.


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