How Universal Are Universal Symbols? An Estimation of Cross-Cultural Adoption of Universal Healthcare Symbols

Chih Wei Joy Lo*, Huey Wen Yien, I-Ping Chen

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

13 Scopus citations


Objective: To evaluate the effectiveness of universal health symbol usage and to analyze the factors influencing the adoption of those symbols in Taiwan. Background: Universal symbols are an important innovative tool for health facility wayfinding systems. Hablamos Juntos, a universal healthcare symbol system developed in the United States, is a thoughtful, well-designed, and thoroughly tested symbol system that facilitates communication across languages and cultures. Methods: We designed a questionnaire to test how well the selected graphic symbols were understood by Taiwanese participants and determined factors related to successful symbol decoding, including participant-related factors, stimulation factors, and the interaction between stimulation and participants. Additionally, we further established a design principle for future development of localized healthcare symbols. Results: (1) Eleven symbols were identified as highly comprehensible and effective symbols that can be directly adopted in Taiwanese healthcare settings. Sixteen symbols were deemed incomprehensible or confusing and thus had to be redesigned. Finally, 14 were identified as relatively incomprehensible and could thus be redesigned and then have their effectiveness evaluated again. (2) Three factors were found to influence the participants’ differing levels of comprehension of the Hablamos Juntos symbols. Conclusions: In order to prevent the three aforementioned factors from causing difficulty in interpreting symbols, we suggest that the local symbol designers should (1) use more iconic images, (2) carefully evaluate the indexical and symbolic meaning of graphic symbols, and (3) collect the consensus of Taiwanese people with different educational backgrounds.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)116-134
Number of pages19
JournalHealth Environments Research and Design Journal
Issue number3
StatePublished - Apr 2015


  • Hablamos Juntos
  • Pierce’s semiotics
  • universal medical symbols
  • wayfinding


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