The sense and nonsense of icons and pictograms

Charlotte van Hooijdonk (Utrecht University)

February 23, 2022

In PLAIN’s first webinar Charlotte van Hooijdonk presented her research on the comprehensibility of icons and pictograms, which explored whether they would make for more inclusive communication in the Netherlands and Flanders (Belgium).

At the start of the corona crisis, governments needed to communicate about all kinds of new measures that citizens had to adhere to, for example, “keep 1.5 meters distance” and “avoid crowds”. It was essential to share this information in an understandable way, given that Dutch is not the mother tongue of all citizens, and the written word can form a barrier. Icons — highly simplified images that express a message — could help to optimize communication with these groups. The idea is that images are easier to understand than written language. But is that true?

The research, requested by the Municipality of The Hague (The Netherlands) and the City of Ghent (Belgium), and on behalf of the Taalunie (Language Union), provided some results that were striking and sometimes startling.

After the presentation followed a discussion of the implications the research would have for plain language specialists’ work.

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