Lessons from a Failed Pictogram

Ever gone to the fuel pump and not known which side the fuel is on?  I have. I even do it in my own car if I’ve been away for awhile.  So I was pretty interested see the following tweet:

PSA: The arrow next to the fuel pump symbol tells you what side of the car the fuel goes in:

I went out to my car to see if I’d been a fool all these years.  Turns out this arrow is not universal.  It’s not included in my car.  But going back to twitter, I saw the following claim by Gerry Gaffney:

"Actually, *orientation* of the pump tells u. If handle on left, fill on left; if on right, fill on right. But not universal…"

This is a visualisation Tom drew to illustrate this claim:

This is correct in my car - the pump handle is on the right and my car fills from the left.  But it turns out it’s a urban myth - Gerry actually found this out and informed me.  It started with a chain email called ‘The World’s Best Kept Auto Secret’.  This has propagated into online videos.

If it was true, it would be a stupid indicator.  Even if you knew the meaning it would take a ‘left means right and right means left’ moment. The point of a pictogram is to convey meaning in an easily understandable way.  In this case, the fact that the fuel pictogram requires explanation means it would fail this test.

It would fail in a technical sense too.  Years ago I was almost part of the international standard review for public information pictogram (ISO7001).  If I remember correctly, to be included in this standard, the pictogram had to be correctly interpreted by 80% of people with less than 10% of people interpreting the exact reverse meaning (the 80/10 rule).  Up for debate at the time was tsunami signs like the below.  Can you guess what it means?

It’s on the side of the buildings in Japan to indicate that the building is a vertical refuge that will survive a tsunami.  Personally, I thought it meant get out of the building and run for it.  I think this failed the ISO test, but it’s still better than the fuel indicator.  That wouldn’t come close.  Which leads to the first lesson.

Lesson 1: If a pictogram fails the 80/10 rule don’t use it.  Redesign it or simply use words.

Still, the fact that the myth exists and propagated so widely indicates an issue existed.  People were clearly wanting a way to determine which side their fuel was on.  If people didn’t resonate with the problem the myth would have died out quickly. In this case, clearly, somebody figured this out and the arrow has been added to at least some new vehicles - indicating the original failed to correctly identify all the meaning people would want. This leads us to the second lesson.

Lesson 2: If a myth exists it’s often a search for meaning that can be used to identify a design problem, which is the first step to a solution.

If you like pictograms I recommend you check out The Noun Project.  The goal of the project is to organise pictograms of the world into a visual language library.  It’s really great, but I do wonder how many things like this would pass the 80/10 rule.

- Tristan


PS: If you like this, you may like a post I have have previously written about how the design of my fuel indicator lead to my wife running out of fuel, leaving me stranded at the airport.

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