The restroom elevator ambiguity

1603 Elevator restroom ambiguity
Ware are the restrooms? Upstairs? Paris, January 2016. Image credit: R. Casati

Pictograms have been around for almost a century now, and in the last fifty years they have undergone systematic standardization and refinement. It’s all the more surprising that, for all the theoretical and practical design investment on them, some problems appear to be still unsolved, even intractable. One is the major elevator/bathroom ambiguity.

Let us proceed stepwise.

  1. There are complex issues with the bathroom pictogram already – the way genders are represented by stereotypical clothes does not meet universal approval.

  2. But the bathroom pictogram (BP) stabilized both the stereotype, and the idea that a gender difference is graphically salient. This meant that it was, and still is difficult to create a gender neutral pictogram for “human”.

  3. As a further consequence, the way some gender neutral activities are represented, e.g. activities related to transportation, invite the use of both stereotyped pictograms – man and woman. After all, elevators are taken by both women and men, and elevator segregation is a thing of the past. The elevator pictogram (EP) contains the same syntactic elements of BP.

  4. But the power of BP strikes back. It has a much higher historical and visual inertia.

Conclusion: In the worst of cases, you end up in a bathroom if you look for an elevator. In the best of cases, we are left with an ambiguous pictogram. And using BP and EP next to each other does not appear to lessen the ambiguity.

Our recommendation is to leave BP alone (at least for the time being; see 1. above) and to seriously rethink EP. Compromise is possible, as in the example reproduced above. Icons for users of elevators have been cut at the belt, gender is not marked, and some movement is implied in the halved figures.

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