When Disaster Symbols Become an Oxymoron

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I came across a new collection of disaster mapping symbols, the “Disaster Response Map Symbols” from the Portuguese chapter of the Association of Volunteer Emergency Response Teams.

At first I was excited that someone had created a new resource, but when I looked at the symbols themselves, and how they’re implemented, I realized I could not remain silent on this topic any longer, because this is not the first time such a set of mapping symbols has been so mis-designed, and real damage is being done to emergency response because of it.

The practice of designing new symbols without basing them on existing symbology, the existing symbol grammar and syntax, and not testing the new designs properly, or even at all, must stop. The more symbols that exist for the same object or concept, the greater the number of people will be confused by their use.

One existing set of disaster mapping symbols was created by the Federal Geographic Data Committee Homeland Security Working Group, and codified in an official standard, ANSI INCITS 415-2006; Homeland Security Mapping Standard: Point Symbology for Emergency Management

As bad as the ANSI/INCITS standard is, with its symbols mostly not adhering to existing national and international symbol standards, and its evaluation process using procedures that can not accurately determine if the symbols can be easily and consistently interpreted correctly, the AVERT symbols are worse. They completely ignore the ANSI/INCITS work and conventions, their symbols are graphically far inferior, and there is no evidence they were even tested at all, much less tested according to the ISO standards designed to ensure symbol comprehensibility.

This is much worse than the similar problem we have in language, when certain words obtain an alternate colloquial meaning, as is the case with “cool”, “bomb”, “bad”, “wicked”, and many other terms co-opted by the youth for often opposite meanings from their prior use. The confusion created by poorly designed map symbols is more problematic because there are far fewer contextual clues which one could use to divine the proper meaning, and because each additional graphical concept or convention introduced weakens all of the other conventions that have previously been associated with that being symbolized. And especially with today’s online maps, a legend is rarely present to define the symbols.

Author: Peter Sheerin

Peter Sheerin is best known for the decade he spent as the Technical Editor of CADENCE magazine, where he was the acknowledged expert in Computer-Aided Design hardware and software. He has a long-standing passion for improving usability of software, hardware, and everyday objects that is always interwoven in his articles. Peter is available for freelance technical writing and product reviews, and is exploring career opportunities in interaction design. His pet personal project is exploring the best ways to harmonize visual, tactile, and audible symbols for improving the effectiveness of alerting systems.

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