A Far-reaching Symbol Based Communications System

Unlike many countries, which often rely on international organizations or isolated governmental agencies to lead symbol sign development, the Chinese government has taken an expansive, even aggressive stance regarding the development of pictographic communications and standards. A vast country with many language dialects spoken as well as a burgeoning international business posture, China, over recent decades, has steadily endeavored to assemble one of the most comprehensive and far-reaching graphic symbol communications systems available on any continent.

This impressive public information graphical symbols system is extraordinary in that it covers a wide and expanding range of subjects, from common symbols, food and shopping, tourism and entertainment, to medical treatment and healthcare, passenger and cargo transport, road traffic signs, safety, and accessibility symbols. Although generally universal in scope, there are many examples of ‘localized’ messages such as “Instant Foods” (left), in this case, packaged noodles, “Tea,” and “Chinese Cuisine,” etc.

Few countries have organized as ambitious a native effort to develop and disseminate as well researched and competent a set of graphical standards. Now, for the first time anywhere outside of mainland China, 549 of these public information symbols are being made available by the digital art design firm Ultimate Symbol, led by founder Mies Hora. The system has just been published in the reference work Official Signs & Icons 3,  available for purchase or download at

Typical Chinese airport signage at Shanghai Pudong International Airport (PVG).
English is the de facto second language and accompanies most public symbols
along with native Chinese on signs. Note the symbol for “Maglev” (magnetic
levitation train) now in use as an airport shuttle. Photo: Mies Hora

Extraordinarily Comprehensive
The materials presented in the volume were gathered from nine individual CNIS (China National Institute of Standardization) graphical standards and are divided into their primary subject areas, including Common Symbols, Road Traffic Signs, Tourism & Entertainment, Passenger & Cargo Transport, Recreation, Sport, Shopping, Medical Treatment & Healthcare, and Accessible Facilities. While the CNIS standards clearly reference universally established sets like those of the AIGA/DOT, ISO, UIC, MUTCD, and ANSI, they have nonetheless evolved a wonderfully thorough and cogent benchmark upon which all wayfinding designers, not to mention commercial enterprises, can draw as an efficient non-verbal communications toolkit.

Mies Hora explains how it all came about: “I had the good fortune to travel to China several times after being invited to teach a Master’s design workshop at Tsinghua University’s Academy of Arts & Design, Department of Visual Communication in Beijing (China’s ‘Yale/Harvard’). During the first visit in February of 2012, I met several prominent Tsinghua professors and learned that members of the faculty were profoundly involved in shepherding China’s ongoing effort to develop a comprehensive national symbol system. After further research, I decided to directly contact the CNIS and met with them while teaching my second workshop at Tsinghua in late 2013. After several visits and discussions with gracious officials at the CNIS headquarters, it became evident that there was not a single existing database or repository for the symbol artwork that is displayed in their multiple official standards.”

Shanghai airport also uses images of fruit to assist drivers in remembering
what area they are parked, an effective use of metaphorical imagery as a locator.
Parking Level 7 is identified as “Pineapple.” Photo: Mies Hora

After securing permission to reproduce and publish the symbol system, Ultimate Symbol set about creating new vector art for every symbol, rigorously referencing the printed standards and a few sample vectors provided by the Institute. The specifications for the originals were scrupulously followed, and great care was taken not to refine or alter the proportions or general character of the symbols. Notably, there is a wry intelligence and even a sense of humor in the depiction of standard public-related visual messages—an unusual (and refreshing) aspect of this meticulously implemented national symbol system.

Strong Leadership
One research fellow in particular played an outsized role in guiding the development of Chinese sign standardization – Bai Dianyi. He led the effort to establish a ‘graphic symbol standardization system,’ first proposing the concept of an ‘urban orientation system.’ His team of researchers then worked on a state level research project to fulfill and perfect the standards system. He has advanced the nationwide application of the graphic symbol standards and promoted the popular application of graphic symbols in various industries and public spaces in both middle-size and large cities.

Mr. Dianyi established the ‘national standards system of standardization working guidelines, guide and writing rules’ as the first drafter of GB/T. China National Standards, also known as ‘Guo Biao Standards,’ GB/T are ‘recommended’ standards (quasi-mandatory). He has directed researchers to create and manage a relevant standards system and made concerted efforts to regulate the development of those national standards. Dianyi has also undertaken the ‘studies of China technical standards development strategy,’ a major task of the key national technological research program, acting as the chief technical writer of the overall report.

Only after CNIS’s specialized research committees have developed a clear set of content message descriptions for a particular standards category are symbol sets commissioned out to master designers such as Professor He Jie, a Postgraduate and Ph.D. Supervisor at Tsinghua, and his team of assistant teachers and graduate students. Dr. Jie’s impressive resumé includes an active role in the massive multi-disciplinary design effort resulting in the exemplary 2008 Beijing Olympics graphics and symbol signs system. Thus commences the many elaborate phases of symbol drafts and testing before final symbols are approved for publication, or to update an existing standard.

Regulatory signage at Beijing Capital International Airport (PEK). Photo: Mies Hora

National Standards Library
While Ultimate Symbol has focused primarily on the CNIS pictograms to enable comparison with other, better known systems, there is a wealth of information and specifications in the complete standards themselves. With the largest standards collection, the National Standards Library of the CNIS has research and inquiry services relating to both domestic, foreign and international standards with and without charge. Searching and inquiries may be completed online or through mail or telephone calls at:, +86 010-58811391

Wing Sze-Ho, a New York City design student originally from Hong Kong, recently noted, “The code-switching these symbols have to do is impressive. Overall they read cleanly and quickly in both Chinese and English, like pairing the Chinese classical string instrument, the erhu, with the violin, and the mah-jongg tile and Chinese chess piece to counter the Western chess piece, but some are only recognizable to a Chinese audience. For example, unless you’ve shopped in a Chinese medicinal and herbal store or received it as a (quite valuable) gift, you would not recognize the shape of the ginseng root. The same goes for the silhouette of the ceramic glazed jug that traditionally holds alcohol such as rice wine.”

Ho was amused by the pet food signage, noting that traditionally cats and dogs were fed whatever scraps were left over from the dinner table. “Dogs in Chinese culture are considered the lowest and most debased form of living existence, so keeping them as pets is a new Western thing adopted by young people.” Of interest to Chinese language students, early in 2017, Tsinghua University Press (TUP) published a Chinese translation of a previous edition titled Official Signs & Icons 2.


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