Using Images and Icons

Since the beginning of graphical user interfaces (GUIs), images and icons have been a major part of well-designed architecture. Their greatest strength is that with one picture a whole concept can be depicted. One reason behind this is that a picture evokes shared experiences that everyone has within their particular culture. When it comes to software localizability, this strength from shared experiences becomes one of the greatest weaknesses of images and icons. Obviously not all cultures share the same experiences or backgrounds. What for one culture might be a positive experience might be a negative experience for another.

Take colors, for example. In the United States, wedding attire for the bride is largely associated with the color white, while black is associated with death and burials. However, in Japan the color symbolism is just the opposite; white is the predominant color at funerals, and black is considered a color that brings good luck for weddings. Cultural color perception is just one of many issues that can affect the perception and effectiveness of your overall design. The following sections will look at issues to avoid when designing images and icons for your interface.

Avoid culture-specific examples

Just as color can evoke different emotions from culture to culture, certain images can have the same effect. A couple of good examples come from the early days of GUI operating systems. In earlier UIs a U.S. rural mail box was used to indicate mail. This was acceptable for use in the United States because many people had grown up using these types of mail boxes. However, when the image was introduced in Europe, most people wanted to know what a breadbox sitting on a pole had to do with mail. A much better choice would have been-and still is-using an outline of a postal letter, since most people who understand the concept of mail would understand this image. (See Figure 1).

Use culturally-appropriate images

Figure 1: Earlier image used to represent mail, versus the newer and more culturally-appropriate image

Another example of an image that can have varying interpretations from one culture to another involves the concept of a "wizard." A wizard was used in earlier user interfaces to represent assistance for doing something the user might not understand. Based on Americans' experience with wizards like Merlin in the King Arthur stories, pointed caps and magic wands were used to depict this concept. (See Figure 2). Again, these images worked well in the US, but the concept of a wizard is foreign to many other cultures. Even for some cultures that do understand the concept, wizards don't necessarily wear pointy hats. In still other cultures, a wizard represents something evil or destructive; it can even be a religious abomination, rather than something that is meant to enlighten or assist someone.

Culture-specific images for wizard

Figure 2: Culture-specific images formerly used to depict a software "wizard"

Avoid showing flesh or body parts

There are as many different attitudes about displaying the exposed human body as there are shades of gray. What is considered taboo in one culture or country/region can be widely accepted in another. These varying attitudes range from the body needing to be completely covered to the acceptance of bikinis. With the widespread use of the Internet and global communications, you will never know for sure who will see or use your products. Thus the best practice is not to display skin or even use a body part to convey a concept. So instead of using an open hand to represent "stop," use the internationally-accepted, eight-sided stop sign. (See Figures 3.) In addition to the taboo factor, although using the image of an open hand might be understood in the United States as a way to indicate the action of stopping, this doesn't mean the image will be understood in other cultures.

Use the internationally-accepted stop sign

Figure 3: Rather than using the hand to represent the action of stopping, use the internationally-accepted stop sign

The use of body parts can indeed raise different emotions other than the one intended. Take the American gesture for "okay." (See Figure 4.) Although the gesture might be accepted in the United States, there are other parts of the world where it will not be understood, or where it can even have some very obscene connotations. Again, it is better to avoid using images involving a human body part, unless you are dealing with software that has a specific medical theme or context. Even then, be careful not to show a hand in some type of gesture.

Gesture used in the United States for OK

Figure 4: Gesture used in the United States for "okay"

Beware of gender-specific roles and ethnic stereotypes in other cultures

Taking the skin and body gestures one step further, you must also be aware that diverse cultures view the roles of men and women quite differently. In some cultures, men and women are treated as complete equals; in others, one gender is seen as subservient to the other. Thus in some cultures Figure 5 would be offensive because it shows a woman standing above men in an apparently superior role. A better graphic to portray the same idea is in Figure 6, where the human figures are gender-neutral.

Potentially offensive graphic for its depiction of gender-assigned roles

Figure 5: Example of a potentially offensive graphic for its depiction of gender-assigned roles

FigureĀ 6 raises another point: ethnicity. In this figure you cannot tell what race the people belong to. Some cultures feel the same way about ethnic-group roles in society as they do about gender roles. By adhering to the guideline of not showing skin (or skin color), you can feel safer that you are not generating content that has higher potential risk in a locale.

Example of an inoffensive graphic

Figure 6: Example of an inoffensive graphic, since it avoids depicting gender-assigned roles

Avoid religious references

From ethnicity, the content risk can be widened to include religious references. It's important to avoid any religious references so that you don't offend a local culture's expectations or appease one religious group at the expense of another. A symbol that might seem innocent to a developer in the United States might be sacrilegious to a consumer in a certain market. Be very cautious about employing any religious references, even for holidays and more common events.

Avoid political symbols

When it comes to governments and politics, it is very important to realize that your product's distribution in a local market is often dependent upon the local government's approval. Thus when localizing for a specific market, you must take into account the local government's expectations for content. As much as possible, it's important to avoid including content that could offend the local government, either by challenging its authority or by criticizing it through support of a rival government or faction.

Software has been banned in some countries and regions simply because a map showed that a disputed piece of land belonged to another country/region. Maps are very graphic and obvious statements about a government's sovereignty, so a user associated with the disputed piece of land would know very quickly if the maps are accurate or not. In addition to maps, flags can be a very sensitive piece of content. For example, a flag in a user interface that represented an unrecognized country was very upsetting to a nearby government, causing that government to ban a product on the basis of the unrecognized flag. Both of the incidents just mentioned emphasize one of the most misused group of graphics: political symbols, maps, and flags. Most unknowing developers use flags as a graphical way to display a particular language, country, or region, but that is not what a flag represents. Flags are nationalistic; they represent ideals, boundaries, and political beliefs, but they do not represent a language. For instance, which flag do you use to represent the English language-the American flag, the British flag, the Canadian flag, or the Australian flag? All of these countries speak English. In the process of selecting the most appropriate flag, you will inevitably offend someone because you left them out. The best practice with all flags, national or regional symbols, maps, and so forth is to avoid them as much as possible.