The Impact of Culture on Iconography

From a designers perspective, using Japan and the Japanese culture as a case study.


Iconography surrounds us on a daily basis. Humans have communicated with visual representations of concepts for thousands of years, but never has this been more relevant than in today’s society.

With each year that passes, the tasks we complete on our smart devices become more complex.

In design, icons are used to circumvent language obstacles, educate and increase the utility of the product, ultimately by making things simpler for the user.

As designers, the use of commonly understood icons reduces the amount of learning required to use our products effectively.

The real challenge lies in ensuring that your icon is commonly understood.

Iconography is also found in street and building signs. The result is often that we can look at a sign and understand its meaning even if we haven’t seen it before.

Furthermore, we have been exposed to many of these signs throughout our life and can frequently understand their meaning and the action required even before we have taken the action ourselves.

An example is a ‘Children Crossing’ sign (below), which many people would understand long before they have ever driven a car.

Whilst we may take the ‘commonly understood’ symbols for granted, we shouldn't; particularly when it concerns safety or respecting social norms.

This was evident after the 1996 fire in Dusseldorf airport. After the inquest into the fire, one of the many changes that were made was the ‘wayfinding’ signs. They were changed to provide clearer universal visual directions to the fire exit, suitable for the broad spectrum of international passengers.

In theory, iconography and signage, especially when touching on the issues such as safety and prohibited behavior, should be universal, but it isn’t always the case.

Language and culture play a role.

Case Study: Japan

To dive a little deeper on the topic, I think its important to provide some context.

I’ve decided to look at the role of culture in signage and iconography in Japan, from the perspective of an English speaker.

Japanese Language: A brief overview

The Japanese language is made up of two alphabets (hiragana and katakana) and one character system, called Kanji.

It works something like this:

The hiragana is the phonetic pronunciation of the word, which in turn is how you read the Kanji. As you can see, the numbers one-three could be deciphered without knowing their meaning.

This isn't always the case with Kanji though, and there are more than 2000 taught in school alone. Highly literate people often know many more.

Here are a couple more simple examples, which could be deciphered without knowing the meaning.

As you can see, the idea of iconography is somewhat different in Japan, as the idea of characters (which could also be seen as symbols) are already built into their everyday language. This is also reflected in their use of iconography and signage.

The influence of language and culture

Here are two examples which look at the way visual communication is effected by cultural and linguistic norms, and how messages can be transmitted without understanding the local language.

Example One: The Stop Sign
This is the clearest example of linguistic impact when it comes to signs.

The stop signs in Japan (left) are not the same as the universal stop sign (right), laid out by the Vienna Convention on Road Signs and Signals.

It says ‘stop’ in Japanese, which makes sense for the people living there but doesn’t account for foreign visitors. The sign was designed for its main user in mind, but overlooking foreign visitors could be dangerous.
There have been rumors that this may be changed prior to the Olympics to cater for the influx of international visitors.

Example Two: Action Prohibited

Below are two examples which are both quite different.

Whilst being too complex to be described as iconography, the images are simple and the meaning could be understood without reading any of the text.

This is particularly relevant for the ‘No Tattoo’ sign on the right, because it’s culturally insensitive to enter public bathing areas with visible tattoos, and visitors may not be aware of this.

The style of illustrations remain influenced by Japanese manga and illustrations, but the message is universally understood.

Iconography and gestures

Many icons which we are exposed to are derived from gestures, or ideograms which represent abstract ideas.

Here are some examples:

An interpretation (sometimes there are many) is given below each, from the perspective of a native English speaker.

This reflects how we infer meaning from simple illustrations or iconography.

Let’s look at a few of these in the context of a Japanese audience:

Thumbs down

On the left, you can see the ‘thumbs down’ icon which is often used in digital design. Its meaning is normally understood as ‘dislike’ or ‘no’.

In Japan, the meaning of this is entirely different and loosely translated as ‘go to hell’ or something even worse.

To convey the meaning of ‘no’ with gestures, it is normal to cross both index fingers.

Its possible that with the worldwide popularity of social media and its design that some Japanese people have learned the meaning in the context of the platform, but it’s certainly not the best way to convey the meaning of ‘no’.

Result: Probably not suitable for a Japanese audience.

Okay, show me the money!

Its not often that the ‘ok’ gesture is used in design, nevertheless it has a different meaning in Japan.

The above symbol means ‘money’ in Japan to represent the shape of a coin.

Result: Not suitable for a Japanese audience.


Iconography plays a large role in how we live our lives. Every day we are exposed to signs, labels and instructions which guide us to complete sometimes simple, but often important tasks.

We need to be aware that the meaning of icons and images is affected by cultural background of our users.

As designers, it’s important to consider the audience for whom we are designing. Whenever we can, we should use established design conventions to keep the learning curve low for our users, but this doesn't mean we use the established convention when it may not be suitable for our specific audience.