Rhetoric of warning labels: Human figures in cross-cultural design

Jacobsen, Kylie
Major Professor
Charles Kostelnick
Committee Member
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Evaluation of warning label design does not always include the perspectives of researchers or graphic designers and legally, warning labels hold no responsibility for changing human behavior. Over the past two decades, much attention to warning label design has come from fields such as human factors, ergonomics, and social psychology, but scholarship on abstract visuals in technical communication is not emphasized. Warning labels use generalized abstract bodies to depict the risk of great and potential hazards, demonstrating a removal from physical reality. This paper will look at warning labels through the lens of abstraction.

Abstraction is a non-mimetic form of an object or an idea, and its interpretation greatly depends on the context and culture it is observed in. Arnheim's theory of abstraction can help designers create effective designs that communicate cross-culturally based on a system of symbols, signs and pictures. The range of abstraction is evident in hybrid warnings that employ both symbols and pictures. Historical uses of warning labels have been subtly reshaped over the years from highly modernized images to ones that contain symbolic images that aid context and understanding of risk.

To analyze the way culture shapes warning images, vending machine warnings were analyzed to understand how context and culture affects the abstraction. A selection of wet floor signs was also analyzed for the cultural influences observed in the abstract representations of human figures. Even though the images are standardized, the international images uncovered links between the designs of the warnings and their current usage that suggested they were influenced by prominent art movements during the 20th century. While standardization is the surest way to represent ideas across all audiences, the images analyzed in this paper demonstrate that warning label designers can stretch the boundaries of standard designs. Very few of the images remained constant between signs that demonstrate the same warnings, which suggests that viewers are responding well to localized images.