March 2012
By Corinna Melville

Corinna Melville is the editor of tcworld, tekom's magazine for international information management.



Localizing visual content

While a lot has been said about the translation of the written word, the localization of graphic material including illustrations, figures and tables is still not clearly structured in many organizations. We often find that visual content is not localized at all. Are international organizations simply lacking the know-how and resources for the accurate localization of visuals or is visual content understood on a global level?

Surely there is no need to introduce you to the “running man”. We all know him: The green matchstick figure escaping the imaginary inferno through a bright white gate to safety. Why do we all know him? Because the running man is a rare example of a truly global icon – an image understood by men and women from Tokyo to Tunis, from Rio to Reykjavík, rich and poor, well-educated or illiterate.

What you might not know about the faceless fellow is that he is of Japanese origin. In 1980, the Fire and Disaster Management Agency of Japan found itself in need of a symbol that could be understood by anyone at a glance – including foreigners – and thus proposed an emergency exit sign to the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). A green-colored sign was approved as a graphical symbol for guiding people to safety. Member countries agreed that this sign was suitable because it is clearly visible even in smoke-filled air and the green figure conveys quick but calm action. Today, some countries use slightly different versions of the "running man", but this sign is used all over the world.

In the case of global icons, simplicity isn’t found easily. As Hisaaki Kato from the ISO/TC145/SC2 JSSA Committee (dealing with signs, shapes, symbols and colors) can tell you, an incredible amount of thought goes into the development of such visuals. “We need to think about whether or not such symbols can be understood as a natural reflex, what kind of action can be expected of people who see them, and if the symbol conveys the same information to people from different cultural backgrounds.”

As a result, the approval of any new symbol at ISO takes at least two years. “When a new item for standardization is submitted, member countries decide by vote whether or not it is necessary to standardize this item. The submitted item is adopted as a matter for standardization only after it is deemed as necessary,” Mr. Kato explains.

At least 300 participants from three or more countries and from different cultural backgrounds are required to conduct the testing of a new symbol. The test persons write down unreservedly their views on the meaning of the symbols presented to them. Only symbols that achieve a comprehension test score higher than 80% are submitted as a draft, which will then be subject for an international vote.

A picture is worth a thousand words

In technical communication, the benefits of graphics such as figures, tables and images as well as layout and creative design, are well acknowledged. Not only can visuals break the language barrier, they also have the effect of making readers understand information in a more intuitive way and help them memorize this information.

In addition, visual elements can reduce the amount of text, thus improving the efficiency of translation.

Ryuta Masuyama from the Sony Corporation in Japan explains that Sony in many cases only translates the text, while the same illustrations and layout are used for manuals in all languages. “It is necessary to devise an innovative method of creating illustrations and layout of manuals that all global users can understand.“ Cultural sensitivity has top priority when it comes to the development of such visuals for global use: “We must be careful about using illustrations that portray human beings, especially women, and animals and we must also prevent biased use of different races. Such issues can be avoided by making the illustrations more abstract.”

An example of how people can be illustrated in a neutral manner is shown in the picture below.

Sony aims to illustrate people in a neutral manner.

© 2011 all rights reserved by Sony

Pictograms and Ideograms

Pictograms are often the simplest way to convey a message, many times even more plain and effective than the written word. A pictogram is an image that represents an object. Generally, pictograms can be understood regardless of someone's native language or degree of literacy.

We can find many examples of pictograms in airports. To help manage the flow of large numbers of people through transportation hubs, the US Department of Transportation developed an entire system of signage symbols, which were made available for free to encourage their worldwide adoption. Anyone in the world familiar with a drinking fountain should recognize the pictogram.

Two famous examples for pictograms: Anyone in the world familiar with a drinking fountain or an eskalator should recognize these pictograms.


An ideogram, on the other hand, is a character or symbol representing a complete idea or concept. The “no-smoking”-sign is a familiar ideogram, which is used globally. The circle and bar configuration have acquired the universal meaning of NO through use and acceptance.

“The most important factor is that everyone who sees a picture derives the same meaning from it,” Hisaaki Kato of ISO continues. “When pictorial symbols are standardized for the drawings of pictograms, there is no cause for misunderstanding since these pictograms themselves are descriptive. There is no determinable element, however, for the drawings of ideograms, and there is a lot of difficulty in expressing an idea with a picture.”

An ideogram is a sign or character representing an idea. It can demonstrate the perils of tipping a vending machine or request visitors to not smoke in a specific area.


Japan was the first country to introduce a graphical symbol system, which presently contains 300 registered pictorial symbols. These symbols were originally developed for persons with intellectual disabilities. However, it was soon revealed that these same pictorial symbols were also very effective for visitors from abroad. Therefore, the title was changed from “pictorial symbols for helping persons with intellectual disabilities” to “pictorial symbols for communication support.”

“We spent three years to standardize the pictorial symbols for ideograms that could be understood by anyone,” explains Mr. Kato. “I hope you understand how difficult it is to create symbols.”

Visualization from a UI perspective

Let’s now take a look at a field that has a pronounced experience regarding the deployment of visuals: The design of user interfaces (UI) and in particular graphical user interfaces (GUI).

A graphical user interface allows users to interact with electronic devices using images instead of text commands. Compared to the graphical symbols described above, there is one clear advantage when it comes to developing graphical elements for a GUI: Most objects represented by the visual elements are part of the product. Therefore, in many cases there is no need to take into account the cultural background of the user.

Masami Maekawa of Sosa Design, Inc. has years of experience designing user interfaces for large corporation.

“In order to express a particular function in visual form, we often use the image of a descriptive item as a metaphor of the function so that this function can be presented to a user in an easy-to-understand manner. For example, the illustration of a floppy disc is used to indicate the "save"-function, while the illustration of a printer is used to indicate the "print"-function,” he explains.

“When the relationship between a function and an image used as its metaphor is already established as a de facto standard as in the abovementioned functions, there will be no problems. If it is not a de facto standard, however, sometimes cultural and regional influences may be imposed on the visual with regards to its shape and color. Therefore, caution is necessary for visualizing the information for global users,“ Mr. Maekawa continues.

In cases where no singular icon has been established as a de facto standard, a visual needs to be created following a thorough testing process. Sosa Design develops UI prototypes, observes user reactions and conducts interviews.

Special care also needs to be taken where several graphical symbols are available that indicate more or less the same function for different product fields. “It is important to understand the context of use, including cultural and regional background, user-oriented attributes as well as the application field of the product, when expressing a function in visual form,” Mr. Maekawa states.

Then, of course, there are those cases where one visual is deployed for different functions…

The infamous x-mark

Hardly any symbol is deployed in such contrasting and manifold ways than the x-mark. In Windows it is used for closing a window, although the Windows guideline indicates that it should be used for an error dialog. Apple uses the x-mark for cancellation. In Japan the x-mark is used to indicate a bad example, whereas the O-mark (a circle) indicates a good example.

Does this seemingly confusing (over-)use of the x-mark call for standardization or are users sufficiently experienced in understanding the different meanings of the symbol within its context?

“ISO 3864-3 defines the design of graphical symbols in detail. This standard also stipulates that representation methods can be flexible as long as the meaning of a graphical symbol is not misunderstood, despite the fact that the international standards are basic guidelines,” explains Hisaaki Kato.

“ISO defines the combination of a red circle with a backslash (diagonal line running from top left to bottom right) as a prohibition sign. On the other hand, standalone backslash and cross symbols are defined as a negation sign for the guide route symbol. There is a difference in the meanings of the words ‘prohibition’ and ‘negation’. The word ‘prohibition’ implies the act of preventing something and ‘negation’ implies denial of something. There is a nuance of meaning between these two words. The ‘negation’ sign is basically used for manner signs. Therefore, these signs must be used selectively in a manual depending on whether they concern human life or property. The × mark is used in the ‘negation’ sense to indicate an error and cancellation.”

The synonymous use of the x-mark and the tick-mark (✓) can cause further confusion. We find the x-mark is used for filling out a check box just as well as the tick.

“Discussions regarding the use of the ×-mark and tick for the check purpose have just started at ISO,” Mr. Kato explains. “The ×-mark and tick-mark are treated equally on a global level at present and this state of flux is creating a controversy. Japan is taking a stand in opposing the registration of a tick-mark as an international check-mark. The Japanese position is based on two reasons: 1) the Japanese recognize the tick mark as a sign in a document but not as a symbol and 2) the Japanese cannot determine whether or not a tick mark indicates the concept of "yes" (agree) or "no" (disagree). The issue of the ×-mark and tick-mark is currently under discussion and we cannot expect an answer anytime soon.”

But one thing is for sure: The running man will still be around.


Acknowledgement: This article is based on a panel discussion, which was held during the Technical Communication Symposiums and tcworld Japan conference in Kyoto in October 2011. We thank the Sony Corporation for providing a translated copy of the presentation records.