Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Car Bombs and No-Smoking Ashtrays

James Fallows recently shared two photos of signs in Beijing and asked his readers to guess their meanings (see here for post).

Here is the first sign:

And here is the second sign:

The first sign confused me at first, but when I thought "China" the meaning was immediately obvious to me: "no firecrackers".  In China, I've seen firecrackers lit just about anywhere, including on sidewalks as people are walking by.  I've also seen signs forbidding them in a variety of places such as subway stations.

In a later post James Fallows shared some other responses from his readers to the "no firecrackers" sign.  Here are just a few:

  • "No Fishboning Permitted!!!"
  • "Don't pull the martial arts weapons off the pine trees"
  • The sign must mean: "Don't step on the fishbones lying on the ground, because it will make a funny noise."
  • My guess - "cutting down trees and/or removing tree branches is prohibited."
  • Beware of falling Douglas fir twigs?
For a fuller list of interesting guesses by Fallows' readers see the post here.

The second sign, which James Fallows initially labeled "no car bombers", left me more baffled.  In his post, Fallows shared some of my thoughts including that it was "no loudspeaker announcements from cars", "no sirens", or "no giant sponge monsters on top of car".  As the last guess may indicate, none of my answers had left me convinced I had really figured it out.

Later, Fallows added the following two contributions from readers on the meaning of the sign:

  • My wife (from China) says the second one means "no transporting loads on top of cars."  (btw, she knew no firecrackers instantly).
  • [Reader who once lived in China] As for the second sign, I have seen it many times before and never figured it out. But the firecracker sign gave me an idea: could it mean "no setting off fireworks on top of your car?" I have seen people in a Chinese wedding motorcade dropping fireworks onto the road, so perhaps in the past they affixed them to the roof of the car.
The first explanation seems questionable to me because I am unclear why this rule would be applied to such a specific area.  I also am not sold on the second explanation.  I've seen some pretty raucous wedding motorcades but have never seen anyone lighting firecrackers on their car roof (yet).

If Greece has anything to say about the sign they may actually support something similar to Fallows' original suggestion.  For example this sign in Greece:

according to Wickipedia means "No vehicles carrying explosive or flammable goods".  All I can say is I guess Greece doesn't have a giant sponge monster problem.

I was now curious to hear from some more people in China.  Not having time to do a rigorous experiment in Beijing, I informally showed the Beijing "no car bombers" sign to a waitress and waiter at a cafe (where I am writing this piece) in Chengdu, Sichuan province.  Here's a summary of their responses (they both easily recognized the first sign as "no fireworks"):

Waitress (who had last year passed her driving test):
  • She was clueless at first.  She said she had never seen a sign like that in any of her preparation for the Chinese driving test.
  • She first suggested it might be about not carrying fireworks.
  • She then wondered if it was about not making noise.
  • Her final answer was that it was a warning not to stop because something could fall from above.
  • He too had never seen such a sign.
  • His first guess was that it was about objects falling from above.  He stuck to that.
I shared the suggestion that it was "no transporting loads on top of cars."  Neither thought that was a possibility.

So, with the little evidence available to me it doesn't appear the sign has a consistent interpretation, even to Chinese.  However, maybe it's a Beijing thing.  With any luck, Fallows will later share more (which looks like will happen soon).

The signs brought to mind another moment when I had been confused by a symbol in China.  This is what I saw in a supposedly no-smoking hotel room in Dunhua, Jilin (for some earlier posted photos of scenes in Jilin see here):

While the symbol seemed readily clear to me, "no smoking", its placement on an ashtray seemed to be rather contradictory.  I wondered if there was an explanation other than someone having a strong sense of humor.

Numerous times in China I've seen evidence that would suggest the ashtray may be a response to hotel guests' behavior.  No-smoking rules are not regularly enforced in many parts of China.  It's not uncommon to find people smoking in designated non-smoking areas, whether it is a hotel room, elevator, stairwell, etc.  I've also seen the effects of people smoking in a no-smoking hotel room -- for example, glasses intended for drinking filled with cigarette butts.

The ashtray may be a pragmatic design in that it both informs people (where else is a smoker more likely to notice a non-smoking symbol?) and it reduces the chances of other undesired consequences if people ignore its message.

Also, in many cities in China no-smoking rooms are only available in more upscale hotels.  It is possible this hotel merely wanted to "act" upscale but had no real concern about guests smoking.

When I showed the ashtray photo to the same Chinese waitress she said it meant "You shouldn't smoke because it's bad for your health, but here's an ashtray in case you still want to".  Her interpretation would be consistent with the idea that the "do not" slash is more of a suggestion than a rule.  Maybe fitting since in China there are many "rules" which are in fact rather flexible.  Another waitress believed the symbol meant "no smoking" but was confused about the purpose of the object.  Her only guess was that it was a pencil holder.  When I suggested the possibility it was an ashtray she dismissed the idea as ridiculous since the no-smoking symbol was obvious.

So, like the car-bombing sign, the true intentions behind the no-smoking ashtray (or whatever you want to think it is) remains unclear.

I share the above because it highlights the challenges in creating symbols that convey a clear and consistent meaning without using any words AND the challenges in fully interpreting symbols in other cultures where you may not be aware of key contextual information.

This is an issue I've faced in my work when evaluating/creating icons for software, online services, etc.  Even a button for a seemingly simple function can provide a difficult challenge.  What at first may seem to be an obvious solution could be found to be ineffective after observing how numerous potential users interpret it.  It can take several cycles of design and testing to find the best symbol.

Furthermore, you may need to either localize symbols for particular groups of people or find a symbol that is interpreted consistently regardless of culture (which can be challenging depending on the cultures involved).   Even if a symbol is understood, it may still need to be localized to feel more "home-like".

And possibly, like the "no fireworks" sign, sometimes it might not be a problem if a symbol is only understood by some people.  The people who don't understand the symbol may not be the people you're trying to reach.  The "no fireworks" sign may be clear enough to fireworks-loving Chinese.  The fact that non-fireworks wielding foreigners don't understand it is not critical (assuming they don't cause a fish bone incident due to a misinterpretation).

So, next time you see a symbol being used you can ponder the challenges in finding the "right" symbol and whether the way you see it is the same as people from other cultures.

Finally, the waiter and waitress I questioned about the Beijing sign didn't feel satisfied with their answers.  They very much wanted me to tell them the answer and I had to say I was unsure myself.  When I explained that I thought the confusion was possibly indicative of poor design or that the meanings of some symbols need to be taught to be understood the waitress responded, "Well, this is the government making mistakes.  Don't blame the people."

I definitely won't.

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