The science of symbols
As human beings, we are surrounded every day by symbols. However, these mostly go unnoticed despite the huge amount of influence they have on our lives. To see this, walk into any shop and look at the produce. You will see packaging covered in symbols to help you immediately understand what is inside.
If you see a bottle or carton with a cow on the side, for example, you immediately assume it contains milk. This is a symbol designed to aid our understanding. If it was taken literally, the bottle might contain beef gravy or something equally cow-related, however our brains immediately make the link of liquid + cow = milk.
Why is this important? When it comes to safety in the workplace, it is vital. The same logic that causes a brain to think 'milk' thanks to the symbol of a cow can also prevent serious injury among employees when it is applied to safety signage. The images on these signs need to be well-designed so people can easily avoid danger.
Many people don't understand why symbols are necessary when signs can contain text explaining exactly what a danger is. Like many aspects of sign design, the answer is that the hazard needs to be understood before an employee gets close enough to it to be harmed.
For example, if someone with a lit cigarette walks up to a flammable object, they need to know straight away that they are in danger. Getting close enough to read text could be the difference between safety and an injury. Then you must consider employees with poor eyesight, people with dyslexia or those for whom English is their second language.
The solution to these problems is a symbol that can easily be understood by all from a safe distance, without needing to understand or read text. The symbols themselves, therefore, need to be incredibly comprehensive so the dangers they warn about can be recognised immediately.
How is this achieved? One way is by simplifying the image down to its basics. Take a fire, for example. In real life, fire is constantly moving and is a range of colours from oranges and reds to deep purple and blue. It can be nothing but a dull glow, or it can billow out like a cloud. Including an accurate image of a fire on a sign would make it much harder to understand.
Instead, the safety sign image for a fire is a simple black and white picture of flames. This is immediately more recognisable from a distance, as the lack of detail and colour makes the image much clearer. However, designing symbols isn't just about clarity over distance. People also need to be able to immediately recognise what they mean.
The symbol for explosive material is a good example of this. Challenge someone to come up with a symbol for an explosion and they will probably come up with a irregular, zig-zag kind of shape like those seen in cartoons. This is fairly recognisable as an explosion, but the problem is it is very similar to the symbol for fire.
If two signs can be confused with each other, the symbols have failed. As such, a different image needs to be used that clearly expresses an explosion. The one that is currently used features a circular object, with lines of energy and fragments of material radiating away from it.
This is easily recognisable as an explosion, so warns people about the danger. It also is different from the flammable symbol, so there will be no confusion. This is always the aim with any kind of safety sign.
The simplicity of the symbols is key, which is one of the reasons why there isn't a specific image available for many of the hazards people face at work. Instead, health and safety managers have access to a general warning sign with a simple symbol: the exclamation point.
This tells employees there is some kind of hazard, but not one of the most common ones. If each danger had a symbol, it would end up being confusing. In dangerous situations, simplicity is key. Being able to see straight away that something is dangerous is sometimes all that is necessary, even if the actual danger isn't immediately clear.
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