Standards for warning icons?

Subject: Standards for warning icons?
From: Geoff Hart <ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca>
To: TECHWR-L Writing <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com>, Nancy Allison <maker -at- verizon -dot- net>
Date: Sat, 08 Aug 2009 07:38:21 -0400

Nancy Allison wondered: <<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.>>

Note that this suggests your first design goal should be extreme
simplicity. Many of your clientele will be similar to us in their
educatonal background. Yet I snipped your list of 18 icons because,
frankly, I'd have trouble understanding that many varying cues. Unless
the equipment will be used by experts who are expected to master the
use of such symbols, this is a significant problem.

You didn't mention your industry, so note that some industries may
have their own standards (see below for more). For some categories of
equipment (e.g., factory automation) you're likely to have a
significant number of people in developing countries may have
difficulty mastering such things. It's not because they're stupid,
which some people tend to automatically assume about low-literacy
people or people who speak poor English. The problem is that many will
have low educational levels (a particular problem in much Chinese
manufacturing), and may already be overwhelmed by the stress of
working in an alien environment under huge amounts of pressure from
their bosses to produce, working insanely long days with inadequate
nutrition. That kind of stress places a major burden on cognition. It
would be unethical for us to increase that burden.

<<Currently, our template provides these icons:>>

See if you can limit this to just the following: risk of harm to the
person, risk of harm to the equipment, and instructional notes that
provide simple information on things the user of the equipment needs
to do. You'll inevitably need to expand beyond this (e.g., in a
document for administrators of the workplace), but try to limit the
expansion for users of the actual equipment. Simple and instantly
clear is the goal; the more symbols you use, the farther you stray
from that goal.

<<The lightening bolt for Voltage is probably pretty clear to most
human beings, but a lot of them are anybody's guess.>>

You'd be surprised about how nonstandard such things are. There's was
endless debate over the correct symbols to use for long-term storage
facilities for nuclear waste because nobody could come up with a
symbol they believed would be clear to someone 1000 or 10 000 years in
the future who had to read it; the naysayers came up with dozens of
contradictory interpretations of the proposed symbols (based on
historical data from other cultures) that proved their point. Here,
William Horton's "the icon book" may provide some useful guidance
about cross-cultural symbols.

<<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.)>>

Yup. And if you focus on those goals, you can dramatically reduce the
number of icons required. But:

<<Whether the danger of bodily harm occurs through fumes, punctures,
etc., etc., is a distinctly secondary purpose.>>

On the other hand, you may be required by local legislation to use
certain icons. For example, there's are clear standards for icons used
in the North American "Workplace Hazardous Materials Information
System", for the transportation of dangerous goods by tractor-
trailers, and for consumer products. You'll need to research your
specific industry to find out what legislation governs icon use for
your specific product in each country where you sell the product.

Geoff Hart (
ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca / geoffhart -at- mac -dot- com
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Standards for warning icons: From: Nancy Allison

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