Having recently returned from an extended round-the-world trip it has become very apparent to me how much Australians rely on international visitors to speak and read English whilst in our country. Almost every airport I have ever visited in the world has their signage translated into a variety of languages, that is with the exception of Perth International Airport. They have however managed to avoid the expense of translation services by utilising internationally recognised symbols.

If you were to walk up to the bathrooms in a Germanic speaking country you would likely be confronted with one door reading ‘Damen’ and the other with ‘Herren’. Most English speakers would probably assume that ‘Damen’ is for the Men, but they would learn the hard way. Even if you take the time to learn the basics of another language, common nouns can often vary greatly from one region to another due to local dialects and colloquialisms and there may be variation in the choice of word. For instance in Australia I have seen male toilets signed as everything from ‘Men’, ‘Gentlemen’, ‘Gents’, ‘Lads’ and even ‘Blokes’. This may not seem like a big deal to most of us but for a non-English speaker in desperate need of a toilet the result can be disastrous. The simple use of the well recognised male and female symbols is an easy way to avoid this and leave a good impression on ALL customers.

In 1974 the AIGA developed a set of 34 symbol signs, which could be understood by everyone regardless of age or culture. In 1979 another 16 symbols were added, bringing the total to 50. The symbols are simple, legible and so ingrained in our minds that you probably ‘read’ them before you realise you have seen them.

Many of you might think that this does not apply to your business but if you are one of the many businesses in the South West who cater for the tourism, wine and hospitality industries, chances are it does. Our region hosts a number of fantastic music and cultural events, and the organisers of these need to be aware of international visitors. Additionally anyone marketing products to an international market now or in the future need to at least be aware of how their marketing materials and packaging might be interpreted.

This can be as simple as using the male and female symbol on toilet doors in restaurants and public places or using colours such as red for restricted areas. When packaging products with safety hazards the use of symbols in the original design can make the design more universal and save costs re-designing in the future. When considering the design of a venue for any large event the use of symbols is especially important and can even help prevent liability issues.

If you cater to an international market consider the use of symbols instead of, or in addition to words, you will greatly increase your chances of being understood by the majority of people.