Creating Universal Sign Systems

…and how it could improve the effectiveness of print design.

I read an old interview with sign and symbol expert Mies Hora where he was describing the ideal sign system.

And I'm not talking about astrology or any other esoteric art here. Sign systems, for our purposes, are things like road signs, the signs that direct us around public areas, and signs that provide warnings. Hora says that the ideal sign system includes no words, and can be standardized universally.

For example, if we wanted to create a set of symbols that could be used to direct people around every airport in the world, it would have to use no words, so that it superseded language barriers, AND include images universally relatable enough so that anyone can understand them.

Creating sign systems is kind of like the science of creating effective communication. I wonder, how difficult would it be to communicate using only images, and no copy or words of any kind in print design? This is done occasionally in advertising, but it's certainly not the norm.

Often, this style of image-focused print design is used by multinational companies that don't want to produce unique print collateral for every country they have stores in. Businesses like IKEA, for example, take customers from A to Z of the consumer experience using a blend of symbols and print featuring happy people shopping, largely without using any words. This allows them to print and ship the same collateral to the Netherlands, Romania, and Canada.

Would print design and print advertising be improved by finding ways to communicate without written language? Would a standardized system reduce a designers creative opportunities, or would it just present us with new opportunities to be creative?

The reason this idea intrigues me so much is because every sign system is designed to get us from Point A to Point B. And print advertising isn't so different. Print is designed with a goal in mind – get the consumer off the street and into the shop, get the prospective traveler online buying tickets, get the voter to the polling station, etc.

Like sign systems, most print advertising is trying to lead the way, so why not think of a print collateral design project as an exercise in developing a sign system that drives traffic in the direction you need it to go?

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