Since last October, many citizens have been lending their time and resources to help the camps set up for the refugees arriving from places like Syria and Romania in various cities throughout Europe. As Erwin Bauer, founder of the Vienna-based design studio buero bauer, put it: “Civil society started to act.”
Bauer says that since designers are also a part of civil society, they had to act, too. That’s why he contacted the Red Cross, the NGO in charge of running the refugee camp in Vienna, to see how a team of designers might help them. Since many of the translators working at the camp were students that returned to university after summer was over, the remaining method used to communicate with the refugees was nothing more than makeshift signs plastered onto the walls. The lack of a common language between the refugees also created comprehension issues when trying to interpret the written signs.
That’s where Bauer’s team stepped in. They decided that the best solution to the problem would be to design a selection of icons that could be understood by any cultural background. This pictogram language began with the essential icons: medical service, toilets, and food. They released the first batch at once and asked translators and refugees for feedback, which allowed them to create new versions. The pictogram language that resulted from this system of collaboration was an adaptable set of images that could be easily understood by the refugees.
The pictogram system created by Bauer’s team emphasizes respect and the symbology that represents the cultures seeking sanctuary and those of the host country. A perfect example would be the first aid sign the designers created which featured a Red Cross, the Western symbol for first aid, and a crescent moon, the symbol most commonly used in Arabic countries. The designers initially put the Arabic symbol on the left of the cross, a position considered to be “first” in Western countries. It wasn’t until a translator called attention to the fact that Arabic is read from right to left that the designer reversed them. The result was a sign that, when read from either side (right to left or left to right), showed respect to both cultures from their own perspectives.
Bauer has released the system on the company website for download in kit form, but the system is still adapting and evolving thanks to the cooperation of other designers and organizations. Bauer hopes the project will spur designers to help with the refugee crisis and bring some communicational structure to the camps. “Communication now works within different channels, different target groups, slightly different meanings,” he says. “Part of this project is to show designers themselves that they can do something.”
If you want a set of the icons, grab them here.