Academic journal article Visible Language

Toilet Signage as Effective Communication

Academic journal article Visible Language

Toilet Signage as Effective Communication

Article excerpt

The need for clear cross-cultural signage is related to increasing international business, recreational travel as well as significant world events like the Olympics. Using toilet signage as the occasion for examining cultural diversity and similarity, the author takes an historical approach to sanitary habits, contextualizing cultural habit and its manifestation in signage. Visual documentary evidence from many cultures accompanies the discussion. Analysis and investigation of these images in terms of uniformity within diversity locate the key functional characteristics of toilet signage as identification and segregation. A high level of consistency in use of male and female images to identify toilets, along with a great diversity in visual treatment characterize this study.

The widespread use of pictorial signage for toilets is a product of the acceleration of mass tourism, along with the internationalization of business and the economy that has taken place since the 1960s, but is also part of the processes and changes in society that commenced in the nineteenth century and arose out of the Industrial Revolution. In the contemporary period toilet signs are almost universally indicated by images of men and women, and the segregation of the sexes seems to occur in most cultures. I consider that this phenomenon is a product of the expansion of western culture internationally both in the colonial and post-colonial periods. The development of pictorial information systems was a product of changes in the post World War II period, but the dissemination of these systems followed the expansion of US business, the internationalism of commerce and culture that occurred in the post war period which was driven by the United States. The use of these symbols paralleled the 'international style' of graphic design adopted by corporations for their communications (internal and external), based on a European visual and philosophical tradition, but driven by American and European business requirements. Toilet signs tend to be more abstract and stylized when they are in locations of high density traffic and tend to be in the international pictograph style reflecting a dominance of western form and culture. The vernacular and more popular forms tend to be in third world countries or in locations that experience low density traffic flows.

INTRODUCTION: definitions and function

(identification and segregation)

The signs identifying public toilets are some of the most common images existing cross-culturally in the contemporary era. Charles Saunders Peirce's definitions are useful to clarify different functional characteristics of signage. He defined signs in terms of three categories: icons, indices and symbols (Fiske, 1991). Toilet signage demonstrates characteristics of each category. The icon is defined as a sign that resembles the object. I found only a few examples that actually depict the toilet itself, and these were recently introduced in New Zealand (FIGURE 1). More often toilets signs represent users, differentiated into men and women, (and sometimes children), which I consider to be an iconic function. The index provides a direct link between the sign and the object, and toilet signage most commonly does this by indicating location, usually on the door of the toilet or a street sign near to the facility (FIGURE 2). The toilet sign also has a symbolic function as it does not, in most cases, depict the facility or the activity of using a toilet and thus involves learned behavior and culturally accepted conventions on segregation of the sexes and use of toilet facilities. Words also fall into the symbolic category as language involves learned behavior, as written words do not directly depict meaning (FIGURE 3). The commonly seen combination of both image and text raises the issue of the effectiveness of the pictorial image alone. While I consider that toilet signage falls into the category of signage that has elements of the icon, index and symbol, Fiske considers signs denoting men's and women's toilets as iconic (1991: 47). …

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