Saturday July 25, somewhere far from Paris, at a freeway service area like any other...
Well, like any other until I noticed an astonishing pictogram on my way to "where you're supposed to go on a freeway service area"...
We're all familiar with its male equal: the white and blue "handicapped" pictogram. Maybe I don't pay enough attention to this kind of symbol... but it's the first time I've seen a "handicapped woman"!
So I decided to delve into the history of this pictogram.
It was born in the 60s in the context of the international disability rights movement. To be precise, it was the NGO "Rehabilitation International" that took the initiative of organizing a competition in 1969, which resulted in Suzanne Koefoed's (a Danish design student) work being chosen. However, its international success was due to the support of 3M, who made it widely available on their adhesive labels. The pictogram was soon confirmed by ISO and the UN as the universal symbol of accessibility.
As presented by Francine Saillant and Patrick Fougeyrollas in Reliance magazine (N°2007/3), this pictogram, icon of a "disabled" person in a wheelchair, represents a struggle for the widest possible accessibility to places and buildings for people marked by the daily experience of a functional difference. Today, it's everywhere: in our parking , in elevators, in toilets...
The main criticism of this pictogram is its lack of polysemy. It highlights "the person who doesn't walk", forgetting the other categories of disability: the deaf, the blind, the one-armed... but also all the intellectually impaired... or the elderly, or even infants. This sign seems to place the "wheelchair user" at the top of the disability hierarchy, rather than representing the diversity of disabilities. In fact, the article in Reliance magazine reminds us that the original symbol featured the headless disabled person, which was added by the jury in the 1969 competition.
I wonder what "graphic designers" could have said to such a question! This is one of the most difficult exercises in graphic design. To fit so many meanings into such a concise sign would take genius!
However, there are a few possibilities, starting with the use of color. The Gay & Lesbian movement simply answers this question by flying a rainbow flag (a symbolic representation of the diversity of sexual orientations).
In the light of this example, the white and blue icon, which is intended to be universal (Blue = ONE color?), seems quite neutral, and only imperfectly conveys the complexity of the subject.
Like all graphic designers, we use signs handed down from our forebears on a daily bases. Signs that claim to be universal (in the West!). But our role as designers is also to ensure that these signs always have the same universal value, even if it means making them evolve as society evolves.
I'm digressing, but the list could go on and on:
- How will our children interpret the floppy disk icon?
- Who will use Papi's magnifying glass when zooming into the digital age?
- An envelope from the last century to symbolize an email?
- An hourglass for waiting!
- A Compact Disc in the age of MP3.
PS: I give a big thumbs up to Apple for updating its "Power Saver" icon in the latest version of its operating system...
PS 2: For those of you who love obsolete icons, the list is always growing... We'd love to hear from you!