Comprehension of disaster pictorials across cultures

Gerda J. Blees, Willem M. Mak

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


In different countries, the use of pictorial information symbols to convey warnings and instructions is becoming more common. An important reason for this is that people from a variety of cultures can understand graphical symbols. However, symbols developed in one culture may not have the same meaning for people from other cultures. This study compared the comprehension of Dutch and Chinese participants of 30 pictorials from a series of 'universal' disaster pictorials by Dutch designers. Participants completed a Web survey measuring comprehension levels and judgements of five design features (semantic closeness, familiarity, meaningfulness, simplicity and concreteness) of the pictorials. Furthermore, the effect of showing context pictures on comprehension was investigated. Dutch participants showed a better comprehension of the pictorials than Chinese, indicating that the designers probably used conventions more familiar to Dutch than to Chinese people. However, the relative comprehensibility of different pictorials was similar: generally, the same pictorials were easier or more difficult to understand for both groups. Photographs conveying context information improved comprehension levels for Dutch and Chinese participants. This kind of contrastive research is useful for exploring interpretation differences of pictorials intended for use in different cultures.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)699-716
Number of pages18
JournalJournal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development
Issue number7
Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2012


  • Chinese
  • cross-cultural comparison
  • Dutch
  • interpretation of pictorials
  • pictorial symbols


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