Universal yet Cultural: Restroom Pictograms and Human Cognition

Aren’t restroom signs the most frequently seen guide signs, regardless of where you may go in the world? Perhaps they are the most commonly followed, as well. Whether you are at a transit hub like a train station or airport, commercial building, hotel, park, office building, or anywhere else, people will need to be able to use a restroom at any time. Therefore, the experience of finding a restroom is inescapable. We can fulfill our need to go to the restroom on our own without having to ask anybody for directions if we can follow a restroom sign.

Even if you find yourself in an unfamiliar country, when you see restroom pictograms or signs, you know right away what they are telling you. In addition to the commonly-seen figures of a standing male and female, we are beginning to see unique pictograms expressing this same concept, using a design that matches its location or space.

There are various examples of this, including the use of M for men and W for women, characters making an appearance on restroom signs at theme parks, and designs based on a triangle for females and an upside down triangle for males. Are you not impressed also by the high level of ability that humans have in pattern recognition and perception to understand these signs without the actual word Restrooms or WC written out?

These restroom pictograms and signs are listed in the international standard ISO 7001 Graphical symbols — Public information symbols published by the International Organization for Standardization. In addition, recent editions of the Japanese Industrial Standards (JIS) are following in the footsteps of ISO 7001, as they have restroom pictograms in JIS Z8210 Public Information Symbols. In Japan, while there are stringent laws related to signs like danger signs, warning signs, and safety signs, it appears that this is not the case for restroom pictograms.

Meanwhile, the Foundation for Promoting Personal Mobility and Ecological Transportation, which prepares guide signs like the JIS Z8210, has issued the Guidelines on Standard Guide Signs and recommends its use. They have recently conducted surveys and research to adapt to the diversifying needs of users, including visitors from overseas in addition to residents of Japan.

Excerpt from the Guidelines on Standard Guide Signs published by the Foundation for Promoting Personal Mobility and Ecological Transportation

Each of these pictograms has a design that allows you to easily imagine what place, tool, experience, or other element is being depicted. However, the pictograms for restrooms simply have figures of males and females. I think that these are amazing pictograms that instantly tell people around the world that there are restrooms nearby.

Is Japan the only place with different colors for males and females?

I would now like to ask a question about restroom signs. Please imagine the scenario as you read the question before you answer.

You really want to use the restroom right now. You are relying on restroom signs as you walk in search of one. It appears that you have finally arrived at a restroom, given that you have come across a restroom sign. Would you go to the right or to the left?

Were you able to recognize the correct direction for you immediately after looking at this restroom sign? This pictogram indicates that the male restroom is to the right and the female restroom is to the left, but some of you may have been tricked by the colors.

What is interesting is that many people who live in Japan choose the wrong direction. This means that for these people, the colors of the design take priority over the shapes in the immediate decision-making process after looking at the sign.

The reason for this is that restroom pictograms in Japan frequently have the figures and letters colored blue for males and red for females, and people who live in Japan have gotten accustomed to seeing these colors. Even for things other than restrooms, there has been a long-standing practice of using black, blue, green, and other cool colors for males; and red, pink, and other warm colors for females to color-code or similarly distinguish between the genders in Japan. Although this form of differentiation is becoming less prevalent, color-coding in this manner can even be seen in the floors and walls of the restrooms themselves, in addition to the signs and pictograms.

On the other hand, people who do not live in Japan tend to select the correct direction in response to the above question without much hesitation. The shapes of the design can be considered to take priority over colors in the decision-making process for these people. The reason for this is that restroom pictograms and signs are not color-coded based on gender outside of Japan, as they tend to be in the same color for both genders. Whether we look at ISO or JIS, restroom designs are generally in black on a white background. Therefore, there are no indications or guidelines about color-coding based on gender. It is standard for both males and females to be represented in the same color.

When we look at traffic signals, it appears more convenient to use colors, which are more conducive to instant decision-making compared to shapes and letters. To note, the CIE (International Commission on Illumination) has prescribed five colors to be used for signals: red, green, yellow, white, and blue. Of these colors, three are prescribed for use in traffic signals on roads: red, yellow, and green. The colors of signals are common to all nations. Exceptions are not allowed, as they can cause danger.

Reasons why restrooms are not color-coded outside of Japan

So why are restroom pictograms not differentiated by color outside of Japan? I believe that there are three reasons for this.

1. Abolishing gender colors

The concept of gender colors that exists in Japan, in which blue is used for males and red is used for females, is not common to the whole world; and also there are differences between countries, of course. Hong Kong and parts of China used red for male restrooms and green for female restrooms in the past.   Either way, the tendency is to move away from distinction through gender colors, such as this color is assigned to males and that color is assigned to females, as diversity is coming to be understood better on a global level. As a result, newly set up public restroom pictograms in Japan are monotone, abolishing gender colors.

2. Color universal design

Color universal design refers to design that makes an effort to convey information correctly to all people, while paying attention to the diverse ways that colors are perceived. An example of this would be avoiding color combinations that are difficult for those with color blindness to differentiate.

To add, the JIS Z8210 Guide Signs (Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport, and Tourism Guide Signs) in Japan do not specify colors for restroom pictograms, as the basic color is specified as black on a white background. It also states that any color other than the colors of the Munsell color system that correspond to the red, blue, green, or yellow colors listed in JIS Z9101-1995 Safety Colors and Signs can be used. In other words, although there would be no issue using blue and red colors according to this JIS rule, there is a need to select colors that can be recognized easily by the aforementioned people with color blindness (these JIS regulations have also had slight changes to the colors in 2018 out of consideration for diversity in how colors are perceived).

3. Consideration for spatial design and the experience

When designing a space, the important elements are the floor, walls, ceiling, materials of fittings and furniture, colors, and placement. In public areas and commercial buildings, signs themselves become part of the space. There is a possibility that restroom signs in red and blue are the only things with color in monotone spaces, causing them to stand out.

Pictured are restrooms in a luxury shopping mall in Las Vegas. Since there are many luxury clothing brands on the floor, there are illustrations of a man and woman dressed up on the signs.

Total design that includes unique restroom pictograms with colors and shapes that match the spatial concept and other signs and pictograms in this manner give a sense of unity to the concept and atmosphere of the space.

Of course, if essential signs and pictograms blend into the space too much and cannot be recognized, it would be a major issue, as they are no longer functioning as guide signs. I believe that it is an important aspect of designing a spatial experience for signs to be easy to understand and recognize, while also seamlessly fitting into the space. The idea is to maintain as much spatial beauty as possible, while maintaining its function as a guide.

Try questioning your common sense

Those were some examples of restroom pictograms and signs that we inadvertently came across. Classification by color, as is the case with signals, is most likely to be the human cognitive mechanism that offers instant understanding with the least effort, but for various reasons, the ability to recognize something through other aspects like shapes, letters, and locations must also be considered from a design perspective.

How should good pictograms and signs be if they are to be easy to understand for people walking by (visibility) without negatively affecting the spatial design (spatial beauty) or relying on classification by color? The design experience must balance the seemingly paradoxical experiences of not being unpleasant to people who do not need to use the restroom, while being easy to understand as a restroom sign for people who need to find one. Although I did not do a deep dive here in this article, when designing and setting up signs and digital signage, it is important to include the line of flow, audible range calculations and simulation for the optimal image and letter sizes and how they will be seen beforehand (for digital signage, there are guidelines, such as minimum font size based on range of sight).

It is also important to take in the opinions of people from various countries beyond one’s own country to test out usability. Practices and pieces of information that you may think are common could be unthinkable for people from other countries. For example, it is common sense for a Japanese person that a rainbow has seven colors: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, navy, and purple. However, my research shows that these colors vary depending on the country. Questioning what you think is common sense and the practices of your own country by looking at how things are done in other countries, including color-coding by gender for restrooms, could lead you to expand your perspective.

Thinking about things like this, I could not help myself from pulling out my smartphone to take a picture of a restroom pictogram again today……

Note

The article does not cover whole global trends surrounding gender-free restrooms. Please read the article About All-Gender Toilets by the Foundation for Promoting Personal Mobility and Ecological Transportation for further background information and explanations about the unisex restroom symbols registered to JIS Z8210.

Written By

Michinari Kohno

Michinari is a BXUX Director & Designer and is the owner of NeomaDesign. He has worked on UIUX design at Sony for 22 years, mainly working on global products like Playstation 3, Playstation 4. After Sony, he became independent and now is a consultant for next-generation UIUX, doing anything from designing concepts to project management and direction. He loves dancing at musicals himself, watching motor races, and walking his dog.

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