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Comprehension of disaster pictorials by Dutch and Chinese people: the effects of culture, context information and pictorial characteristics

By Gerda Blees


In 2007, three Dutch designers developed a series of pictorial symbols designed to inform, instruct and direct people in disaster situations to be used all over the world. However, as designing and interpreting pictorials depend on conventions that may differ across cultures, it is likely that these pictorials are not equally understandable for people from different cultures. In this research, Dutch and Chinese participants’ comprehension of thirty pictorials from the series was investigated. Furthermore, the effects of showing photographs conveying information about the context in which the pictorial could be used and the relation between comprehension and judgements about features of the pictorials were investigated. Eighty-five Dutch and fifty Chinese participants filled out one of three web surveys about the pictorials. The first survey measured participants’ guessing performance and response time for different pictorials. A second survey was exactly the same, with the exception that every pictorial was accompanied by two photographs of a situation in which the pictorial could be used. In the third survey, subjects were asked to judge to what degree the pictorials possessed five design features (familiarity, simplicity, concreteness, meaningfulness and semantic closeness) and how comprehensible the symbols were. As expected, the guessing performance of Dutch participants was significantly better than the guessing performance of Chinese participants. This shows that the pictorials are not universally understandable yet. However, the fact that there were correlations between comprehension levels of the two groups shows there are similarities between the two cultures regarding which pictorials were more or less comprehensible. Still, the differences between the groups imply that it is necessary to test the comprehensibility of pictorials in different cultures before they are implemented internationally. The expectation that photographs conveying context information would improve comprehensibility was confirmed as well. Based on literature on differences in visual perception between Western and Asian cultures, it was expected that Chinese participants would benefit more from context information than Dutch participants. This was not the case, but an analysis of the effect of context pictures on the comprehension of specific pictorials showed that the two cultural groups did respond differently to these pictures. The judgements of the design features were correlated with comprehension levels in both cultures. Furthermore, the judgements of Chinese and Dutch participants were correlated with each other. In both cultures, semantic closeness was most important, followed by meaningfulness and familiarity. Simplicity and concreteness were least important. These results seem to suggest that the features investigated can be used as guidelines for designers of pictorials. However, looking at the evidence more closely, it seems to be the case that judgements of design features are more related to the comprehensibility of a pictorial than to its actual characteristics. Therefore, it would be recommendable for designers to use comprehensibility, as judged by people from the target culture(s), as the fundamental pictorial design principle

Topics: Letteren, pictorial symbols, cross-cultural comparison Dutch-Chinese
Year: 2008
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