One aspect of design that has always interested me is the creation of icons. Not in the religious kind of way, but in the info-graphic kind of way.

You’re probably all familiar with this sign. It’s seen throughout the United States, and is usually used for fire or emergency exits.

But in Europe, the emergency exit sign looks like this:

Personally, I think the European version is much better. Green has always indicated safety, in almost all cultures. Red means danger, so why would I want to go towards something red? The little green man is also important, because what happens if you can’t read “Exit”, or don’t understand what it means? The visual impact of seeing a person running through a doorway clearly illustrates what the function is.

Which brings me to the Madrid Metro. I came across these icons while riding the metro, and I found them to be quite interesting. For this first one, I wasn’t sure if maybe the thumbs up sign had a different meaning in Spanish culture than it does in the US. I know that in the UK, it’s more insulting to give a raspberry (a victory sign with the palm facing towards you rather than outwards) than to give the middle finger.  Perhaps this sign is telling me not to give someone a thumbs up?  But then I realized that they were trying to tell me not to hold the doors!  That’s not really clear, is it? The door is not the first thing I see here, because it’s not visually highlighted. The bright white (and that racial assumption is deserving of a separate post!) hand totally grabs my attention. Distinguishing the dark blue on the black background is too subtle. Plus, if you were to hold the doors, I don’t think this is how you would do it…. the angle is all wrong! The doors on the metro have two doors that open in the middle, people more commonly insert a shoulder or a hip to keep it from closing.

This next icon also confused me, because I thought it meant “never leave a child’s hand un-held. Hold both hands of your children at all times” — which would be awkward. I’m still not 100 percent certain, but I now think it means “Don’t let you kid stick fingers in the edge of the door, they’ll get stuck” or maybe it means “Children with strange bird-like wings are not allowed”.  Plus, the red circle is usually only used with a line drawn through it, indicating something should NOT be done. But this is just a circle. Does it mean that whatever this is SHOULD be done?  Do we like children with bird like wings? I’m confused.

This last image was by far my favorite, because I think it means “No salsa dancing as you exit the train!”.  Can’t you just see hordes of passengers, all dancing on and off the metro? This would obviously cause enough of a problem to necessitate a sign about it!  But alas, the sign just means “Don’t get your foot stuck in the gap”.  Too bad.  Doing the samba on the platform is way more fun.

Now, lest you think I’m a curmudgeonly old fuddy-duddy, and all I can do is complain about design, let me reassure you that I appreciate how difficult it is to design something that transcends language and culture. These designs are definitely not the worst I’ve seen, and after thinking about it for a few moments I was clearly able to distinguish their real purpose. But that doesn’t mean I can’t poke a little fun, and use it as a challenge to design something better.

Now I’m off to flap my bird arms, give people the thumbs up, and dance along the Tube!


Posted on 13/06/2010, in travel, Travel to Europe and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. This brings to mind that website you sent to me a long time ago about all the different signs for Ladies’ and Gents’ restrooms from all over the world – – see if you can recall where you found it – – should be fun

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