The SEGD/Hablamos Juntos Healthcare Symbols – Will They Work?

Paul Mijksenaar, Fenne Roefs


In October 2010, SEGD proudly introduced a universal set of healthcare symbols, developed in collaboration with Hablamos Juntos (Spanish for “let’s talk together”). It is obvious that it was an enormously complex project and quite an achievement, for which we want to compliment all the many people involved.

Also, it is obviously too late for us to “talk together,” about it, so let’s review the results.

Graphic symbols—or pictograms—have been used for centuries, but if we focus on symbols for everyday life, it all started with road signs in Italy in 1895 (Figure 1). About 50 years later, the Olympic Games followed, as did industry with symbols for household equipment, hi-fi products, cars, and European railways stations.

In 1972, Henry Dreyfuss published his famous Symbol Sourcebook that is still of great value today (Figures 2 and 3).  One of the most successful series of symbols was developed by the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) in 1974 for the U.S. Department of Transportation for use at public transportation hubs such as airports and railway stations (Figure 4).

However, in Europe it was found that some of these symbols, for example the symbols for “trains” and “information” (in the U.S. depicted as a question mark and in Europe as the letter “i”) lacked international recognition and have been changed. Nevertheless, one finds these symbols used worldwide and they are therefore an enormous help for passengers travelling around the globe. (Figure 5)

Hospitals (or healthcare facilities, as they nowadays are named) lacked a similar universal set of symbols. Many graphic designers designed unique symbol sets for their own clients, so that each visit to a different hospital was a surprise for the patients and their relatives (Figure 6). The only common healthcare pictogram used was a red cross denoting the presence of a first-aid facility, but use of this symbol has stopped because the Red Cross organization began to forbid its use in 2002, based on copyright ownership. Red Cross has restricted the use of the Red Cross as a trademark for its organization only.

So it was a good initiative of the SEGD and Hablamos Juntos to start a project to develop a universal set of healthcare symbols. Unfortunately, the result is dubious and not in accordance with the expertise and knowledge gathered by cognitive psychologists and many other professionals who contributed to the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) and national standard institutions.

One of the basic rules of symbols is that they can never be considered “self explanatory.” Symbols should be considered as a visual language and as with any other language, their meaning has to be learned. Thanks to their pictorial clarity, the meaning of some symbols can be guessed, provided they are encountered in the appropriate context (airport, hospital, rail station, Olympic Games). Curiously enough, many road signs lack a visual cue to their meaning (like the signs for “no parking,” “major road,” and “no entry”), but since learning their meaning is mandatory for car drivers, they still work (Figure 7). That is, they work to a certain extent because many symbols still are misinterpreted or confused with other symbols.

According to the ISO standard for testing public information symbols (ISO 9186-1:2014), a symbol should be understood correctly by at least 66% of the respondents in the so-called comprehension test. In this test, respondents are shown a symbol and asked to give its meaning. Two judges score the answers as “correct,” “wrong,” or “wrong and opposite to intended meaning.” In case the symbol is misinterpreted too often (> 34%), the pictogram may only be used in combination with an explanatory text.

Another rule of thumb is that symbols will only work if they refer to a concrete and familiar meaning.

When the above-mentioned rules are applied to the set of healthcare symbols developed by SEGD and Hablamos Juntos (Figure 8), it becomes clear that many of the symbols are not effective. It is very likely that some visitors or patients of a healthcare facility have no idea what kidneys or teeth look like. They will fail to recognize the symbol for “Kidney’”(CM22) and “Dental” (CM29). The same applies for “Alternative/Complementary” (CM11), “Nutrition” (CM10; can also be a hospital shop or buffet), “Laboratory” (CM12), which looks almost the same as “Pathology” (CM13), “Oncology” (CM14). Also “Mental Health” (CM16), “Neurology” (CM17), and “Dermatalogy” (CM18) are visual riddles.

Many of the symbols do depict a clearly recognizable pictorial element, but their meaning does not follow from the image (Figure 9): “Inpatient” (CM04), “Outpatient” (CM05), “Diabetes (Education)” (CM07), “Nutrition” (CM10), “Infectious Diseases” (CM28), “Interpreter Services” (FA10; with human figures cut in half!).

It is disputable whether there is a need for symbols for facilities that patients will (almost) never or never visit without staff guidance, such as “Laboratory,” “Pathology,” “Cath Lab,” “MRI/PET,” “Medical Library,” “Medical Records,” “Surgery,” and “Anesthesia.” Maybe it is assumed that staff will also benefit from using symbols.

Then there are cultural issues. For instance, the symbol for “Pharmacy” (CM06) will never work outside the U.S. (Figure 10). Remarkable and arguable is that some symbols deviate from more common (already existing) symbols like the DOT/AIGA series, for example the symbol for “Waiting area” (Figure 11).

Because of the use of similar attributes that may change in the future anyway (Figures 12a through 12f), confusion might easily occur between “Care Staff Area” (CM02), “Registration” (FA03) and “Administration” (FA05); between “Waiting Area” (FA04) and “Medical Library” (FA08); between “Ear, Nose & Throat” (CM19) and “Infectious Diseases” (CM28); between “Health Services” (CM01) and “Emergency” (FA-01); between “Laboratory” (CM12) and “Pathology” (CM13); and between “Cath Lab” (MA03) and “MRI/PET” (MA04).

Furthermore, there are serious doubts about many of the symbol sets’ “metaphorical” visualizations (Figure 13), such as the cogwheels in “Mental Health” (CM 16; cogwheels are used in the graphical user interface of the iPhone to indicate “Settings”), “Social Services” (FA11), “Nutrition” (CM10), “Chapel” (FA12; clearly a Christian building), and “Oncology” (CM14) (Figure 16). Similar symbols such as FA11 and CM14 are used, for example, for “carwash” and “Handle with Care” for packaging purposes (Figure 14).

Then there is the “Red Cross issue” (Figure 14). For decennia, a red cross on a white square or circular background has been used to indicate “health services,” “first aid,” “emergency,” and “ambulance.” Later came differentiation by ISO: a white cross on a green background for “first aid” (ISO 7010 symbols; E003 for ‘First Aid’ and E004 for ‘Emergency Phone’) and a green cross for pharmacy in most countries outside the U.S. (Figure 15). As mentioned, the Red Cross organization has decided to limit the Red Cross symbol to its own use only. The Red Cross wrote letters to all public organizations, such as airports but also department stores and movie and theater producers, to stop using the red cross to indicate hospitals, nurses, ambulances, first aid kits, etc. At Amsterdam Airport Schiphol, we reversed the colors of the first aid pictogram to a white cross on a red background (the original colors of the Swiss flag!), without any complaints or misunderstanding by the visitors and passengers (Figure 16).

In most Islamic countries as well as in Israel, the red cross was already banned as being a reminder of Christianity. Here, the green half-moon symbol is used instead. Nevertheless, the Hablamos Juntos project chose a white or black cross for “Health Services” (CM01), “Care Staff Area” (CM02), “Immunization” (CM09), “Ambulance” (FA02), “Administration” (FA05), and “Pediatrics” (CM26). We doubt if this choice can survive for long in any multi-cultural environment (Figure 17).

Finally, the Universal Health Care Symbols don’t seem to include symbols such as “exit,” “emergency exit,” “information,” “main hall/lobby,” “restaurant,” “shop/newsstand,” “restrooms” (e.g., family restroom) as well as many mandatory symbols like “no entry, “wheelchair accessible,” “no cell phones,” etc. These symbols should be an integrated part of the complete series.

We are sure that the majority of the Hablamos Juntos symbols will fail any comprehensibility test and therefore must be learned. This is a weak starting point: How can visitors learn these symbols? It is not expected that they can be learned through regular visits to a healthcare facility, because most people (luckily) will not visit them very often. Even for people who do make regular visits to a healthcare facility, it is still doubtful that they will correctly learn the meanings of the symbols (as is the case with transportation symbols which people see frequently throughout their life). Furthermore, without additional explanation, these symbols will be learned only by trial and error, causing stress, which is of course exactly what one should try to avoid in a hospital.

One of the main problems with signing of hospitals—especially in urban areas—is that a major part of their users have reading deficiencies. An important consequence of this deficiency is the lack of general knowledge of their environment. This means that symbols with strong medically related content will not help them, either. Knowledge about medical practices is required to be able to understand what some symbols refer to.

The use of pictorial symbols to indicate different healthcare services and departments should be limited to those that are universally recognized and interpreted correctly by the great majority of users. For many healthcare services and departments, this is simply not possible due to the fact that the public cannot be expected to have enough knowledge about these services and departments to be able to recognize a pictorial representation.

A better way to help visitors fundamentally—besides learning the hospital terminology itself and personal guidance by hosts—might be to provide everyday visual but arbitrary cues. Since the meaning of the symbols must be learned anyway, the symbols don’t have to stand for a medical service but can be chosen based on other features. A limited number of clearly distinctive, recognizable and familiar forms may thus do a better job than medical symbols (example: standard, copyright-free computer font symbols, Figure 18). An interesting attempt in this direction is the signing of the Children’s Hospital in Boston, where everyday objects are used to indicate different departments: ship, moon, flower, fish, and top hat (Figure 19). There have also been many attempts to create a global/universal set of symbols instructing patients how to use medicines (Figure 20).

So it is conceivable that hospitals can use commonly understood pictorial images—the function or meaning of which are explained at the entrance or during registration by receptionists, or multi-lingual directories that could be shown in print, on interactive screens, or even downloaded onto smart phones. This way, it is explained to visitors that, for instance, following the apple symbol will guide them to Neurology, while the symbol of a bee will take them to Ear, Nose & Throat and the symbol of a tree to Genetics, etc. People only need to hear which symbol to follow to their own destination. Maybe Disney could be a “sponsor” and lend their famous characters like Mickey Mouse, Tinkerbell, etc., so the symbols will be usable and highly appreciated all around the world.

To conclude, we have serious doubts if the current series of healthcare symbols will work as they were intended. At least some of the choices made should be reconsidered before unrolling them worldwide.

We would like to thank Dr. T. Boersema for his valuable feedback and corrections on the description of the ISO symbol testing method.

About the authors

Paul Mijksenaar is founder of Mijksenaar wayfinding experts, Amsterdam and New York. As professor at Delft University of Technology, Paul introduced the application of human factors and psychology in the specific field of information design. He is the author of numerous scientific publications and books including Visual Function, an introduction to information design and Open Here, the art of Instructional Design.

Fenne Roefs (MPsy) is a senior project manager at Mijksenaar, a wayfinding design agency. She regularly lectures at Dutch design colleges and universities, and, as a cognitive psychologist has published several articles on ergonomics and wayfinding.

1. Road sign, Italy
2. Cover of Henry Dreyfuss’ Symbol Sourcebook
3. Category “Medicine” in Symbol Sourcebook
4. First edition of Symbol Signs by DOT/AIGA
5. “Rail transportation,” DOT/AIGA (left) and ISO 7001
6. Symbols for the “Westeinde Ziekenhuis” (hospital), The Hague, Netherlands
7. European road signs
8. Examples from Hablamos Juntos series
9. Examples from Hablamos Juntos series
10. Example from Hablamos Juntos series
11. “Waiting area” symbols (l-r) Hablamos Juntos, DOT/AIGA, ISO 7001
12. Examples from Hablamos Juntos series
13. Examples from Hablamos Juntos series
14. Symbols similar to FA11 and CM14 for “carwash” (France) and “Handle with Care” for packaging purposes
15. Red Cross ambulance
16. ISO 7010 symbols E003 “First Aid” and E004 “Emergency Phone”
17. “First Aid” symbol at Amsterdam Airport Schiphol
18. Examples from Hablamos Juntos series
19. Example of standard (copyright-free) computer font symbols
20. Icons used on signage at Children’s Hospital, Boston
21. One of the many attempts to create a global visual “Esperanto,” a series of instructions on how to use medicines

Link to the original Hablamos Juntos project here.