Universal Hospital Signs & Symbols

Author: Christina Krenek

Imagine walking in the door of the hospital in remote China with a terrible head injury. As you try to apply pressure to the wound you desperately look around for a nurse’s station, a registration desk…or any clue about where you can start getting medical treatment. Instead all you see are other patients and a sign written in Mandarin characters. It’s not a good scenario.

Signage is important for navigating a subway or airport, but when it comes to healthcare wayfinding signage, universal signs can be a matter of life and death. As our world gets smaller and smaller many hospitals across the world are working on making their signage more easily understood by anyone. From the first medical symbols to an entire pictographic language, healthcare signage has come a long way.

Universal Medical Symbols

A symmetrical red cross on a white background has come to be one of the most universally understood symbols of medical assistance. The “Red Cross” was created at the 1864 Geneva Convention to introduce a standardized symbol of protection for medical personnel during war time. It’s intended to only indicate official Red Cross vehicles, workers and buildings, but has been appropriated in many cultures as a generic symbol for medical help. The exception is many predominantly Muslim countries where the Red Crescent is used instead.

More recently the development of automated external defibrillators (AED’s) led to this universal symbol:

The international sign for an AED Machine

AED’s are portable electronic devices automatically diagnose life-threatening cardiac issues and use electrical therapy to reestablish effective rhythms. These standard emergency medical tools aren’t just in hospitals: since people can go into sudden cardiac arrest at any time they’re often found in airplanes, restaurants, casinos, hotels, schools and theme parks. And they’re always identified by the universal symbol above.

A floor graphic of a red plus in a Japanese hospital

Modern Application

A beautiful and functional example of healthcare wayfinding signs done right is design legend Kenya Hara’s work on the Umeda Hospital in Japan. Hara created a highly functional, effective and visually stunning system that communicates clearly in pictographs, Japanese and English. Streamlined monument signs at check in start the experience, and then red crosses, arrows and text are inlaid on the white floors, guiding patients and visitors through the facility by creating a “flow line” from point to point.

A 3D sign post in a Japanese building

A major design principle for the project was "The best service for hospital is cleanness". Many of the signs are made of cloth, making them easy to wash and change.

A cloth sign hangs indicating the women's restroom

The Next Generation

In 2004 the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Hablamos Juntos and the Society for Environmental Graphic Design joined forces to develop and test a new set of universal graphic symbols for health care facilities. This group’s goal was to address one of the most important issues facing healthcare administrators: helping people with low literacy navigate complex healthcare facilities. The result of the project was an extensive series of Universal Symbols:

A graphic indicates universal symbols in health care

Testing after the initial research phase showed that patients found signage using graphic symbols much easier to understand than text-based signage alone. Since then many U.S. hospitals have implemented the symbols, including the Women & Infants Hospital in Providence, International Community Health Services in Seattle, Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City and Grady Health System in Atlanta.

"These symbols will save us money in terms of sign implementation and updates," said George Smith, Architectural Project Manager for the Grady Memorial Hospital.

As the healthcare business becomes more competitive each year, it’s up to medical facilities to continuously improve the patient experience. And as patients and visitors typically arrive at medical facilities in distress, clear wayfinding signage is a vital part of providing immediate medical care and personal support.

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