In 2012, Mies Hora was passing through the Shanghai Pudong International Airport, riding China’s rail system on his way to the Beijing Capital International Airport, when he first noticed the country’s public information signage. At first glance, the iconography felt both familiar and foreign; the system was based on the well-known Department of Transportation (DOT) graphic language, though the symbols were adjusted and contextualized for Chinese culture.
The symbol for pharmacy, for instance, is a cross next to some ginseng, which may read as a squid instead of a healing root for anyone who may be unfamiliar with traditional Chinese medicine. The yin-yang symbol over a temple identifying it as a Daoist place of worship appears simple enough, until you consider the specifics of identifying such a building. Non-Christian Chinese go to different temples for different purposes, so that folk religion temples are visited for luck, and Buddhist temples are used for funerals. Finding a sign with a Daoist temple indicates a place for praying to a specific ancestor or deity.
To an untrained eye, all this may have gone unnoticed. But Hora specializes in all aspects of information design, and teaches a Master’s design workshop at Tsinghua University in Beijing. He’s also the author of the reference bible Official Signs & Icons 3, the latest edition of which features more than 8,400 symbols from around the world—from highway and safety signs, recreation and medical symbols, music, math, and currency notations, digital and mechanical labeling, to national flags, cartographic symbols, and airport symbol sign systems. It also boasts the addition of Volume 8: China Public Information Symbols, one of five new volumes in this edition, which includes some of the signs that piqued Hora’s interest five years ago. Significantly, most of the new volume’s 549 symbols have never been seen outside of China, and the system as a whole conveys a remarkable consistency that’s rarely seen in national icon systems.
This level of uniformity and cohesiveness, says Hora, is largely due to the fact that one person—Professor He Jie of Tsinghua University’s Academy of Arts & Design in Beijing —oversaw the entire design effort. The project began decades ago at China’s National Institute of Standardization (CNIS), where a research fellow named Bai Dianyi was tapped to fulfill and perfect a standardized icon system for the country. To this day, Dianyi leads specialized research committees developing clear sets of content message descriptions for each category in the icon system, then commissions master designers such as Professor He to lead the design work. (Dr. He was also involved in the massive effort to create the famous 2008 Olympics signing system).
It’s not unusual for the Chinese government to provide financial support for universities, contracting designers and artists in residence to oversee various government projects alongside their teaching duties. “The teachers give class assignments based on their projects, and some of the work is initially developed by students, then reviewed and guided by Dr. He,” Hora says. “The symbols are intelligently designed—they were created at a high level of understanding of effective visual communication.”
Impressed by the comprehensiveness of the system and the top designers and illustrators working on it, Hora approached the CNIS to see if he could present the material outside of China for the first time in his forthcoming book. The Chinese government granted him permission, but there was a catch: apart from a few vector samples that were provided, practically nothing had been digitized. Each symbol had to be sourced from printed manuals and large-scale original drawings, then redrawn from scratch by Hora’s team in the U.S. “The specifications for the originals were scrupulously followed,” he says. “Great care was taken not to refine or alter the proportions or general character of the symbols.” The process took Hora and his team about four and a half months of meticulous re-drafting to complete.
The effort was well worth it. Seeing the Chinese system alongside other systems reiterates the cohesion of the set. Flipping through the Official Signs and Icons, a design-oriented reader starts to notice inconsistencies within some of the other countries’ symbol sets; everything from line weight to amount of detail varies more than it should from one image to the next. It’s clear that a comprehensive underlying graphic vision wasn’t always guided by the individual designers contributing to those overall efforts. Even though many hands worked on the Chinese symbol project, the overall set is visually even and consistent, thanks to the continued oversight of Dr. He. Throughout, the system maintains what Hora calls “wry intelligence and even a sense of humor.”
Ginseng root aside, another impressive aspect of the Chinese symbols is how effortlessly they code-switch. The cultural incongruencies in icon systems are a favorite puzzle for anyone who loves visual communication: how do you communicate visually across different cultures, when one group of people look at an image and see a squid, and another group will look at the same thing and see medicine? Some things will undoubtedly be misunderstood, but if the communication is clear enough, the unfamiliar viewer may very well learn something new. For example, unlike the wine bottles of Western countries, alcoholic beverages in China are traditionally held in glazed ceramic jugs. Any foreigners eager for rice wine would do best to learn the symbol of a jug silhouette pretty quickly.
When I ask Wing Sze-Ho, a New York City design student originally from Hong Kong, what makes the Chinese symbol system unique, he points to this level of clarity, which makes it easy to figure out even for those who do not share the same cultural references. “Overall [the symbols] read cleanly and quickly in both Chinese and English,” he says. “It‘s like pairing the Chinese classical string instrument, the erhu, with the violin, or the mah-jongg tile and Chinese chess piece to counter the Western chess piece.”
Hora echoes this emphasis on clarity in his introduction to Official Signs & Icons 3. “Public signs exist to clarify information just enough to communicate it quickly and intuitively…Wayfinding, or spatial orientation, is an essential aspect of everyday life: following the best route, recognizing the destination, and finding the way back,” he writes. Like all public icons, the Chinese symbols allow wayfinding and public service information to reach a wide range of travelers, independent of written language. Yet establishing such a high standard of easy comprehension is the holy grail of wayfinding design, and the consistency across the Chinese symbols set gives an example that other countries would do well to follow.
Inevitably, though, some symbols will always remain location-based: the “panda crossing” caution sign, although recognizable to all, will only be useful in the most specific of circumstances.