While flags are sometimes used to show the availability of translated content, there are many other methods and conventions available — many of which are simpler, more effective and more appropriate.
Deutsche Bahn’s language selection is linked directly with region
If the content is specific to language and country, then individual flags are highly appropriate. But languages within countries should not be generalised: many countries such as Belgium, Canada, India and Switzerland have a mix of different primary languages. The reverse goes for languages — languages are not always exclusive to countries. For instance English and Spanish are both spoken by far larger numbers of people outside of England/Britain and Spain respectively.
Sometimes flags are used as a more general abstract concept in communicating the presence of translated content.
Some potential problems with this approach is that it lends itself more to ‘global’ or ‘international’ symbolism. While this certainly overlaps with language, it may not be the best choice unless your content varies both in language and by region. For instance, many airlines may want to present different languages and different content depending on a user’s location.
But take a website such as city tourist board or local government. This approach is not particularly suitable, as the content is unlikely to change based on a users location: only on a user’s language.
The Apple OS and many Linux distributions use a United Nations-esque flag to represent ‘international’ options. These settings also commonly overlap more than just languages: they often include date formats, number and currency formats and also language. Within a system preference environment, this icon works relatively well – as there is very little for it to be confused with. But in a broader context of the web and beyond it may be more confusing: users may wonder what the United Nations has to do with your content.
The globe is a powerful and highly recognisable icon. While that may be its main strength, it also represents a weakness, as it has come to represent a broad range of subjects.
The globe can broadly be interpreted as region, country, timezone as well as a representation of networks and the web. For better or for worse it has also been chosen by Facebook as the icon for ‘notifications’. John Yunker argues why this is a bad choice – and while his arguments are convincing – it still means that another meaning has become attached to the ubiquitous globe.
Returning to some of the reasons why multiple flags may not work, the same reasons can be applied to the globe: if your content is regional/country and language specific then it can be a good choice. However if you’re only providing the same content to all users in a variety of languages, the regional-aspect of the globe icon might not be the most appropriate choice.
The translation icon
OMC² Design Studios in Italy have thought about many of the dilemmas already described here and have attempted to create an icon that best represents translations.
There is obviously a need for an icon of this sort, but the problem with the icon they have produced is that it is perhaps too abstract. Nothing in the icon really suggests translation or languages. While globes and flags may not be the best they would still provide a far more powerful visual message than this icon.
Update (May 2014) – this project has changed it’s recommended icon to this icon:
Designed by Farhat Datta this ‘turnstyle icon’ won the A’ Design award in 2013. It is arguably a far stronger icon that reflects other approaches outlined on this page.
Speech is inherent to language – but in the majority of situations translated content is read and not heard (or spoken) – especially online.
Much like the globe, the speech bubble is often also used to symbolise ‘contact’ and also messaging — such as with Google Talk and Apple’s iChat shown above.
Another approach to graphically representing translation is mixing characters: probably the most ubiquitous being Google Translate’s logo, which places the Chinese character ‘文’ (which can mean script, page or character depending on context) next to the latin ‘A’. This approach definitely relates to the reading element of translated content far stronger than speech bubbles do. It also works well through contrast: Chinese and latin characters are so different it’s hard for this design to have many other meanings apart from one related to language.
Google Translate is also a truly multiplatform product: the same Chinese/latin icon appears across not only the web but also mobile and tablet apps.
Microsoft’s approach to translation icon design reflects Google’s: the only difference being a choice of the Japanese letter ‘あ’, which is the first character in Japanese alphabetical ordering.
Much like Google, this icon is seen across many platforms: from Outlook through to Bing Translate.
Design-wise, the mixed character approach is very strong: it is simple and uses contrasting icons within itself to evoke a higher meaning. Coupled with the clout that Google and Microsoft products have, is this the strongest convention we have for symbolising translation?
While these icons pertain specifically to providing a translation service, pre-translated content can certainly leverage the fundamental concept of these icons.
Is the mixed script the best icon available – or are there other approaches that are more powerful and appropriate?