Standards for warning icons

Subject: Standards for warning icons
From: Nancy Allison <maker -at- verizon -dot- net>
To: techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com
Date: Fri, 07 Aug 2009 10:30:47 -0500 (CDT)

I need resources to figure out an intelligent standard for warning icons for my client. I'm working at a place that makes high-voltage equipment that is used around the world by people with varying levels of English competence, and the danger of electrocution is real. By the way, I have no resources to do usability tests with our international clients, so actual data from them is not available to me.

Currently, our template provides these icons:

Bodily Injury

Some are puzzling (Input, Output, Safe). If you know of a standard that uses and explains them, please tell me about it.

In practice, I have seen only Note! and Warning! used in documents. I don't even see Caution! used.

The icons themselves are of varying clarity. The lightening bolt for Voltage is probably pretty clear to most human beings, but a lot of them are anybody's guess. The Note and Warning icons are both an exclamation mark, one in a square and one in a triangle. There's no significance to the shapes that I know of. In short, the icons do not rise to the level of a universally comprehensible visual language. To complicate matters, the icons are labeled in English, with Puncture! Fumes!, etc., as necessary. These labels will all have to be translated in the subset of our documents that *is* translated.

My big question is, is it valuable to have all these specific-but-confusing icons whose purpose is to indicate the nature of the danger?

Warning! clearly indicates to every reader that there is physical danger, and they need to read the text in the big, ugly, intrusive text box to find out what it is. Is there an argument to be made for having a specific icon, like Eye! (which shows a nerdy guy wearing glasses), so that readers can probably figure out that there is physical danger, in this case to their eyes?ÂÂ

I believe that the overriding, compelling purpose of icons is to make it instantly clear whether an action may kill or injure a human being. (Secondarily, all other icons indicate whether something may damage equipment or data, or may make their life easier.)

Whether the danger of bodily harm occurs through fumes, punctures, etc., etc., is a distinctly secondary purpose. Therefore, I'd like to get rid of all the specific danger icons and use only the Warning icon. The text can explain the specific danger.

However, I'm not moving a muscle until I've researched this issue thoroughly. Maybe there is a widely respected standard that argues otherwise. If you document dangerous equipment or processes, please tell me what standards you follow. If there is a professional standard you adhere to, I would love to know about it. Thanks, all.


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