Re: Internationalization--Standard Icons

From: Markus Kuhn (
Date: Thu May 27 1999 - 04:07:43 EDT

Steve Swales wrote on 1999-05-26 18:08 UTC:
> And some icon that is obviously a mailbox or a phone booth to an American, may
> look like a porta-pottie or a cow barn to someone from Europe or Asia. I don't
> think there has been much work on codifying this aspect of localization.

A lot of work has been put into the international standardization of
various icons such as buttons on consumer equipment or various warning signs.
You are most likely well familiar with them (right-pointing black triangle
= record, black square = stop, white circle = off, etc. on your VCR) without
ever having heard about the relevant standards in this area:

  ISO 7000
  IEC 417
  ISO 3864 - Safety Colors and Safety Signs
  IEC 878 - Graphical Symbols for Electrical Equipment in Medical Practice

I think it is urgent time to extend these international standards by a
set of small nice icons for use in computer GUIs. It would be very neat
to have standard icons for manipulating window sizes, text attributes,
etc. These icons need not necessarily have to become Unicode characters.

Much more important than localizing graphical icons is to come up with a
standardized set of internationally acceptable icons that helps to avoid
having to localize too many aspects of GUIs.

Localization (providing switches to accomodate many different cultural
conventions) is principally a bad idea as it leads to a large number of
different software configurations and should be avoided wherever
internationalization (finding a single functionality and design that is
internationally acceptable over a wide range of cultural conventions) is
feasible. Unicode is an excellent example for internationalization,
while ISO 2022 is a horrible example for localization. ISO 8601 standard
date and time formats are a good example for internationalization, while
the huge configuration mechanisms to support local date and time formats
are an awful outgrow of the localization idea. For example, an email
icon should neither look like a US or a German mailbox, with both
cultures are unlikely to recognize mutually, but should use a single
icon such for instance as a paper envelope with a lighting arrow across
(internationally accepted symbol for electricity) whose interpretation
is much less dependent of the familarity of the user to only locally
available artifacts. Letter envelopes and electricity warning signs look
the same all over the planet.


Markus G. Kuhn, Computer Laboratory, University of Cambridge, UK
Email: mkuhn at,  WWW: <>

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