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Signs play an important role in communicating information. This is true all over the world; however, the meaning of the signs can change depending on the specific location. Let’s look at a few examples.
In Europe, it is quite common to see signs indicating the direction for the “Water Closet” sometime simply “WC.” However, this particular sign fails to communicate the concept to American on-lookers. In the US, the term water closet brings to mind the strange image of an incredibly large closet overflowing with water, perhaps the cause of some unfortunate leak. Instead of confidently understanding the location of the nearest restroom, the Water Closet sign fails to express its intended message.
Often issues with translations indicate the difficulties with culture and signage. For example, a sign originally made for a Chinese audience with an English translation reads “deformed person.” Although it may be technically correct to consider individuals who are not fully able bodied to be “deformed,” actually doing so may cause more than a little disturbance. When translations need to be included on signs, it is essential to have a native speaker examine the text. Just because the dictionary indicates that a particular word does successfully describe a situation, this does not necessarily mean it is the best word to use.
Sometimes specific cultural ideas can complicate a sign’s ability to communicate a message. For example, in India, it is commonly thought that cows have special spiritual significance. For this reason, cows are much protected under the law and are generally given special treatment. This is quite different than American views of cattle. On one Indian promotional sign it states, “We’ll treat you like cattle.” In India, this sounds like a desirable way to be treated, but in the United States, being treated like cattle would be an unpleasant fate. Even worse, calling someone a cow, which the sign could be construed to be doing, is actually a rather bad insult. The different cultural attitude toward this animal affects how the viewer understands the sign.
Other times, the context in which the sign appears is very important. For example, suppose you have two businesses situated together. Suppose they each have a sign that is stylistically similar. One business is a veterinary clinic for dogs and the other business is a restaurant. Many people from the West would not think twice about these two businesses and the proximity of their signs or location; however, to someone from a country in which it is common practice to consume dog meat, the meaning of the signs may be importantly different. When creating a sign, it’s important to consider the context in which the sign will be displayed. When two businesses are placed together which could have some sort of connection, making important stylistic choices about the signage can dissuade any miscommunications.
Occasionally signs that are otherwise designed to communicate a message may be done so in an ironic way. For example, in the Dominican Republic there are very few government signs marking the names or destinations of roads. In order to meet this important need, one private company has stepped up to provide such signage. This company is providing an important service to the local community and as part of their service; the company gets to incorporate a small amount of advertising into the signs. However, one such company sells alcoholic beverages. Given that drinking alcohol and driving are behaviors which should not be combined; this sign conveys meaning while adding a layer of irony.
Sometimes signs which are designed to be humorous can fail to convey a cross cultural message. For example, one such sign reads “All those who spend money here go to heaven. The more you spend the closer you get to heaven.” Clearly this sign is meant to be funny and is encouraging shoppers who may desire to one day reach heaven to get closer to the goal through spending more money. However, in some religions, it is actually not desirable to go to heaven. For example, if this sign was posted in a predominantly Buddhist country, it would not carry the same humorous message. In Buddhism, the ultimate goal is not to reach heaven, but to reach Enlightenment. Those beings who reach Heaven are really not any better off than human beings. In this situation the message of the sign is fairly ineffective. This is another reason to consider the audience of your sign. If you choose to make any references, be sure that they are something the general audience will understand in the way that you intend.
Louise Williamns has traveled all over the globe to study and capture all of the various types of signs out there. From Europe to China to India, she’s seen all types of signage, and now she brings her knowledge to IS Installations and to the masses.