An Iconic Solution

Instead of creating a new “warning” symbol depicting older adults, why have one at all?

Four months ago, the Centre for Ageing Better in London created "a free online competition to rethink the symbols and icons commonly used in public to represent ageing and older age groups."


Its aim was to create signs "appropriate for use in reports, presentations, infographics and other related outputs as a way of visually denoting ‘ageing’ or ‘older people’, in the same way a piggy bank is synonymous with moneysaving, for example."


I assume that such signs would also be used on roads and at street crosswalks in areas populated by an abundance of older adults, such as near nursing homes, assisted living centers, senior centers, and retirement communities.

What's your relationship with aging?

While the organization's well-meaning intent was to recast aging in a more positive light by challenging the traditional depiction of older adults as stooped, slow-walking, cane-bearing individuals, I find the very nature of the contest itself to be problematic.


Here's why.


The purpose of an iconic sign is to alert the viewer about a potential situation that would involve modifying one's behavior, for example, a road sign that warns drivers to slow down and be ready to stop for unpredictable conditions such as falling rocks, or animals or young schoolchildren crossing the roadway. These signs are necessary because we know that rocks, animals, and young schoolchildren aren't capable of bearing responsibility for their actions. That responsibility shifts to drivers.


But what does it say about old people, or people with disabilities, or people pushing carriages and strollers when we create specific signs depicting them? Do we consider them somehow different from those defined by the umbrella term of "pedestrian"? And more importantly, do we consider such groups as less than capable of crossing the street than the average pedestrian?


Of course it can be argued that these special populations might require more time to cross streets than the changing traffic lights would permit. To this point I would say that all traffic lights should be adjusted to increase the time between WALK/DON'T WALK changes to accommodate more kinds of pedestrians. Furthermore, drivers should be alert and ready to stop at all crosswalks, regardless of which type of pedestrian is about to enter the road.


Whenever we feel the need to create an iconic symbol, we should ask ourselves why that need exists in the first place and whether we are unjustly applying a stereotype that demeans the group we're attempting to depict.


Consider a sign like this:

What warning is it conveying to drivers? "Watch out for those reckless, clueless, self-absorbed young people!" First of all, not everyone whose face is buried in a phone is young. People of all ages do this. Secondly, experience should remind us that few young people act this way when crossing a street.


More importantly, what’s your emotional reaction to seeing it? If you find it funny, your response is similar to the one many people have when reading “over the hill” and “black balloon” birthday cards, which mock getting older. In their own way, those images have become icons, too. And the chuckles they inspire? They result from a desire to distance ourselves from the reality that one day we, too, will be old and thus qualified to receive those same cards.


We make fun of groups to whom we don’t wish to relate. But unlike images that reflect racism, sexism, ableism, or homophobia (which social etiquette rightfully deems as offensive), age-based memes are more widely acceptable perhaps because --- since aging is a process that affects us all --- we need them to be.


Icons, by their very definition, represent a discernable thing or group. Some icons, such as “H” or airplane signs indicating the locations of nearby hospitals or airports, are useful. How useful, really, are the icons of age?


Getting back to the competition, after receiving more than 120 entries, the judges chose a winner. Here it is:

According to the Centre, “The judges were pleased with the design being able to capture the diversity of older people, portraying an active and social pair, while breaking out of the triangular road sign shape.”

Aside from the fact that the woman appears to be slipping backwards, losing her balance, and on her way to a fall, the dancing motif errs on the side of whitewashing the older experience as solely carefree and exuberant. To be sure, these emotions exist in people’s later years. But really, who dances when crossing a street?


Older people are first and foremost regular people and just like any other pedestrians. Some walk briskly and even jog or run along the crosswalk to beat the light. Others are slower. Given this diversity, our icons need to be generic rather than specific. For in being generic, they are inclusive rather than exclusive.

Instead of creating a new “warning” symbol depicting older adults, why have one at all?


For my part, I prefer the same old boring pedestrian sign that indicates the place where non-vehicled human beings will be crossing a roadway. Nothing more.


And thankfully, nothing less.





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