As I wandered the hall of my Japanese school looking for icons, I surprisingly felt like Link trying to search for Zelda: a challenging quest with very little direction. In a country full of imagery and design inspirations, I imagined this reflection exercise would be like attempting any video game on easy mode; ironically, in this institution of learning, I found most icons to be in required universal items or even machines that had nothing to do with the school.
As we explore iconography in my surroundings, I became more aware of how living here in Japan has truly challenged me to adapt due to my lack of language ability. In a way, I’ve done what anyone in an unfamiliar situation would do: watch, learn, and memorize. Finding these icons in the Japanese school where I teach were more challenging in that there were a lack of icons throughout a classroom or the school itself (which illustrates Japan’s need to update) and most of the icons I found were in places that had some context and clear imagery of what they were meant to do. Many icons include text as a descriptor to ensure accurate information is conveyed and use is clear. In a country with a different language (a language that also uses kanji, an iconographic system), this wasn’t very helpful for me as an English speaker. I focused on icons that had had some universality incorporated into their design to convey meaning regardless of language.
The 3 signs here show universality in being able to convey their uses:
- The volume icon to show increases/decrease in volume for the school’s speaker system
- The Exit sign indicating the nearest exit (quite different from the red “EXIT” signs we would see in English-speaking countries.
- The heart icon with electricity through it indicated the defibrillator
This icon of the shoe and strikethrough appeared a few times throughout the school, accompanied with both Japanese and English instructions for our non-Japanese guests. It’s interesting to note that most, if not, all Japanese speakers would not need the context as it is a culture of taking your shoes on/off in certain areas of the building (perhaps even the icon would be the only necessary piece of information); however, I feel that they included the Japanese to not discriminate against foreign guests. On the other hand, the text may be necessary for both as the icon alone could suggest “not stepping here.”
The area I found the most iconography were the school’s vending machines (also full of sugar for all my little kiddies). These icons of insert yen bill, collect change, and open the plastic door to collect coffee were so iconic (pun intended) that text was unnecessary in their meaning.
Bombarded with icons on a daily basis, it was nice to reflect upon what images can communicate in a truly universal manner. Jaden Smith begs the question, “What you call an icon livin?” Universal design perhaps.