Since the days of Ancient Egypt when hieroglyphics were the main form of written communication, to the days of the Canaanites and Phoenicians who developed the written alphabet as we know it today, the debate has always raged on: words or symbols? Even now, when it looked as though the written word had conquered the Western World, we have the emergence of the emoji, striking back for Team Symbol.
But matters of emojis and Canaanites matter little to you as a the owner or proprietor of a business, I imagine. But what does matter is what is the best way to communicate to potential customers via your signage. Should you use words or symbols in your signage? The debate continues…
Symbols of brands
If you think of some of the most famous signage in the world, you likely think not of words, but of symbols. Specifically, the logos of world famous brands. But the truth is, very few brands are like Nike or McDonalds where you can see the “swoosh” or the golden arches and you instantly know who they are. And if your brand is like this, you have probably, like Nike and McDonald’s have, spent millions and millions of (billions?) dollars to get there.
So should you use a symbol alone? Or incorporate words into your branding? This isn’t just a question about branding, but also about messaging overall, whether it has to do with safety, directions or wayfinding, or point of purchase signs where you are enticing customers to make a spur of the moment decision. It’s tough to say.
Let’s look at the data in the hopes of answering this age old question. The Sign Research Foundation studies the use, efficacy, and perception of all varieties of signage. And they have researched this very topic. So what does the data say? Well, the Sign Research Foundation’s study threw up the following answers to the questions the provided the general public:
“I prefer signage that uses symbols or icons rather than words.”
- 7% agree
- 7% neutral
- 6% disagree
“I prefer signs that use a combination of words and non-verbal symbols or icons.”
- 9% agree
- 2% neutral
- 9% disagree
So this data very resoundingly says…what? Well, it resoundingly says that people aren’t too passionate about this issue. This is not to say that it doesn’t matter, just that the many people do not consciously think about whether or not they have a preference of words or symbols when it comes to signage. The majority of respondents took a neutral stance on the question of symbols vs words. And a plurality of respondents agreed that signs that use a combination of symbols and words are preferable. Importantly, however, over a third of respondents disagreed that it is better to use symbols instead of words. So, you can use symbols, but perhaps in addition to, rather than wholly without, words. The Bottom lineis that the Sign Research Foundation suggeststhat a balance of verbal and non-verbal communication is best.