Anna Erickson & Molly O C Rowan
When moving into a new market for which your product documentation needs to be translated, the use of symbols is often overlooked – but localizing pictograms is an important consideration, particularly in medicine and health care. According to Korpi and Ahonen-Rainio, the most understandable type of pictogram is directly image-related, like an airplane representing an airport, as opposed to conceptual or arbitrary images, like the recycling symbol.
But even image-related pictograms may not translate to a different culture. In a study performed by Dowse and Ehlers, a misinterpretation stemmed from the pictogram instruction “do not take with meals”, which depicts a person taking the pill along with a crossed out plate set with utensils. According to the study results, only 62% of the South African participants deciphered the pictogram correctly. When the plate setting was replaced by a bowl and a spoon, however, which was more familiar to the South African test subjects, correct identification went up to 87%. Such a leap in understanding was due entirely to making the pictogram more culturally relevant, and illustrates the importance of taking the end-user into consideration, especially when very important information such as medical instructions are to be conveyed.
Whether a pictogram set is specifically localized for a new market or designed for international use, it is essential that they be as clear as possible to the end-user, whose life may ultimately depend on the clarity of the pictograms.