22 August 2014

Designing Bicycle Symbolism - Towards the Future

The Bicycle as a symbol of progress, of renewal, of promising times ahead. This is not a new concept. Indeed it has been around since the invention of the bicycle. Many bicycle posters at end of the 19th century featured promising themes like liberation, progress, freedom. Here's an example:
Vintage Bicycle Posters: Griffiths
In this beautiful poster, there is a lot of metaphorical gameplay. The young woman is riding a bicycle to the future. Dressed in white and seemingly casting fresh flowers as though leaving a trail for us to follow. The old woman is looking backwards to the past as she sits in a bed of thorns, almost resigned to the fact that the future - the bicycle - is passing her by.

When people in most cultures see art or photgraphy, our brain sees movement from left to right and interprets the piece based on that.

The German historian and psychologist Rudolf Arnheim who wrote, among other books, "Art and visual perception – A psychology of the creative eye" noticed that the way many cultures read - from left to right - has an influence on the way we look at art or photography.

‘Since a picture is “read” from left to right, pictorial movement toward the right is perceived as being easier, requiring less effort’.

Bicycles often look better when heading off to the right. In the photo shoots we've done for bicycle brands, we are always careful to shoot the right side of the bicycle wherever possible, so that the chainguard is visible. It just looks better with the chainguard in the shot, but it also looks better heading to the right.
Cycle Chic Photo Shoot for Velorbis
Photo shoot for Velorbis catalogue.


Here are a couple of examples of  'reading' a photo.

At top left, the girl in the poncho looks like she is struggling into a snowblown headwind, which she was. At bottom left, by flipping the photo horizontally, she looks like she is sailing on a tailwind. The pedestrians, as well.

At top right, the bicycle users appear to have an easy go of it with a tailwind. Which they weren't. At bottom right they appear to be muscling into the snow and wind.

The flag at the top is the party flag for the Samajwadi political party in India. In 2012, their rising star, Akhilesh Yadav, won a landslide election in the Uttar Pradesh state elections. Yadav campaigned tirelessly and he rode hundreds of kilometres around the state on his bicycle and organised bicycle rides. Reuters has an article about his rise to power. He thrashed the heir-apparent in Indian politics, Rahul Ghandi by appealing to the working classes, sleeping in villagers huts and aligning himself with the demands of the regular citizens. And the man can even text and cycle at the same time. He's got our vote.

So a bicycle is a fitting symbol for the party. For any progressive party who aspire to be agents of change. I have no idea if the designer thought about the positioning of the bicycle on the flag at the top. Based on this Left to Right perception, the bicycle isn't heading away from us, carrying us to a better future and all the other metaphors you can think of.. The positioning of it - in our perception - suggests that it is going in the opposite direction. Going against the flow, or against the grain, as it were. Which can be symbolic in a positive sense for a political party wishing to embrace change and deconstruct the status quo, but that's far too subliminal. Interestingly, on the political party's Facebook group and elsewhere, there are versions of the flag reversed so it points left to right.

This started out as an article about Mr Yadav and his party's use of the bicycle as a symbol. A discussion started here at Copenhagenize Design Company, however, about how bicycles are positioned in signage and pictograms.

If we suppose that a bicycle heading from left to right is 'positive' symbolism for our sub-conscious perception, then surely bicycle pictograms and signage should feature this directional placement.

We all went over the window to look at the Danish standard on the cycle tracks outside and looked at other examples from around us in Copenhagen.



(Clockwise from top left) The Danish standard as dictacted by the Road Directorate is a bicycle heading from right to left, although the logo of the City of Copenhagen's Bicycle Office - "I Bike CPH" - features a bicycle in the 'positive' direction. The logo for The Green Wave in Copenhagen has the bicycle user in "metaphorical direction neutrality" - could be heading towards us or away from us. I've always percieved this as the bicycle heading towards me, come to think of it. While the standard for Danish signage is right to left, there are variations. Wayfinding for indicating routes on the national cycling network. On the bicycle seat belts on the train to Malmö, the bike heads right.

At bottom right is a vintage sign I cycle past each day, complete with chainguard, fenders and light. Nice. The Danish State Railways tend to use the standard symbol but they are happy to have the bicycle pointing to the right on variations of their signage.


Above are all the traffic signs in Denmark relating to cycling. At bottom left is the signage for bi-directional cycle tracks, which you don't see often for obvious design reasons. But it's there like a retro memory, like the man at bottom right sitting upright with a splendid hat - old Danish signage that we miss so very much. All in all, the pictograms are standardised to feature bicycles heading left.

The traffic engineer logic is that pointing a bicycle to the left indicates potential collision and serves, in their minds at least, to add a safety element to the road signage. Generally, there is a tendency to have the bicycle heading to the right if the signage indicates access or bicycle-friendly facilities, but this is not carved in stone, apparently.
Cykelgade Signage - Fietsstraat
"Bicycle Street - Cars are guests"

We chose, however, to aim the bicycle left to right in our proposal for signage for Bicycle Streets in Denmark. And, even more importantly, we were tired of all the boy bikes in all the pictograms we see around the world, so we made it a proper sit up and beg design with a ladies frame. We like the idea of the Dutch version of their Fietsstraat signs, featuring a cyclist heading towards you, in front of a car. The design, however, is clumsy and it looks hand-drawn. We developed the above proposal based on existing Danish signage. Interestingly, the Dutch signage isn't even official signage, but the Dutch put them up anyway and now people think they are. That's cool.

Farther afield, let's have a look through the Copenhagenize archives to see what's up in the bicycle pictogram world.



Looking from left to right, above, the bicycle symbols are right to left in Zurich, Rome, Ljubljana and Mexico City and then it points to the right in Ferrara. In Vienna, at far right, it's right to left but the crossing signal - one of the funkiest in the world - features a bicycle with casual-leaning cyclist looking right at us. Which sends positive connotations.



In Berlin we spotted what we assume is a vintage design, at left, featuring a chap wearing a suit and riding a normal bicycle. Citizen Cycling indeed. On street and on the parking sign, the bicycles are right to left.


Stockholm can't seem to figure out which way to go.


Nor can Trondheim. Even in Amsterdam they have some variations and varying directions.


In Barcelona, the signage is usually right to left, but left to right on the trains. Suggesting access - supported by the word "access" in three languages, just to be sure you get it.


The Finns work with the right to left concept, as does Antwerp - although they switch it around on the green sign. In Budapest, activists made their own pictogram and spraypainted it on streets all over the city. Great idea, although might have been symbolic to reverse the pictogram.


In Melbourne and on official signage in Riga (is that the world's shortest stretch of bicycle infrastructure?) it is right to left. The bike share in Riga, however is left to right, as is the sign on the door to the train station. The biggest warning on that sign tells you to watch out for the grates if you're wearing high heels. In Tokyo, right to left.


Brazil is a bit confused. At left is a somewhat standard pictogram in Sao Paulo showing the route for the Ciclofaixa each Sunday. The yellow symbol was made by activists - featuring an upright bike heading in the positive direction. On the second-last photo, the sign stating that Volkswagon sponsored the bike lane through a park has the bicycles heading left to right. And yes, we love that irony. The middle photo is from Rio de Janeiro with a rare example of a pictogram straight on. And the pictogram at the right is a newer version that I've seen in use in the city. Nice design, too.


It's a signage free for all in Canada, with different variations across the land. In the US - the only country to put plastic hats on their pictogram people, there is a general standard and it sends cyclists back out into traffic. In New York, this pathway has reversed them in order to show wayfinding.

The French are sending the bicycle backwards, then forwards to a progressive future and then back again. It's all very confusing, although their national standard is the white bike on green.

While some countries still need a national standard and there is an ocean of variations, there are still some people who get it hopelessly wrong. We spotted this, at left, in London in June 2014. It's hilarious. It's a Jackson Pollack interpretation of the British pictogram. At right, even the Copenhagen Metro can screw up. Lovely that it is a step-through frame, but seriously... how many things can you find wrong with that pictogram?

So, after all that, here's a crazy Copenhagenize idea.

Let's get all subliminal. Let's flip our bicycle pictograms on the streets and signage to send a sub-conscious message to all those who 'read' them. It's an inexpensive solution to influence perception of cycling. Think about it when planning your logo.

If, as we mentioned above, ‘since a picture is “read” from left to right, pictorial movement toward the right is perceived as being easier, requiring less effort’, THAT should be the general message on all bicycle pictograms. Send the bicycle from left to right - not only so we can see the damned chainguard - but to broadcast the symbolism of a progressive future.

16 comments:

Karl McCracken (twitter: @KarlOnSea) said...

Mikael -
It is interesting - those places where people don't cycle much do seem to have the pictograms pointing right to left. I'm not saying that these cause a lack of cycling, but perhaps their placement this way round is a subtle clue as to how the planners and engineers who specify & paint them think of the bicycle as a thing of the past that really is beneath their pay grade?

Or are we just getting too Jungian about this?
Karl.

Paul M said...

In some cases, might it be that people are trained to read from right to left? I don't know about the indian languages but Arabic and Hebrew both read back to front from a European pespective. In those cultures, perhaps ointing left is the positive portrayal?

kim said...

It is to do with the way in which the alphabet you use is laid out. It is a well known cultural phenomenon, so European see the future as facing to the right. Whereas those who read Hebrew or Arabic see the future as facing left. In Chinese the future is facing up wards...

Fonant said...

The Cycling Embassy of Great Britain uses this effect in their logo, which originally used a left-wards facing bicycle.

Mikael Colville-Andersen said...

although even in denmark and the netherlands it's right to left.

it should be an intl standard that the pictograms are left to right.

Mikael Colville-Andersen said...

with cultural adjustments for arabic and asian languages.

andybikes said...

Great Britain has a cycling embassy?

Frits B said...

All official Dutch bicycle signs make the bike point left, probably because we are essentially a socialist country where left is good and right is bad :-).
And Karl really thinks we don't cycle much?

Anonymous said...

Oh no, you won't get us hipsters to take photographs of our bikes from their "backside".

Left-to-right ftw!!

Alisdair said...

I've never taken notice before.

Being Australian I'm suspicious that the line guy didn't just put his stencil down incorrectly and go ahead with it anyway!

Kim said...

@ andybikes Yes it does, this is the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain

Charles said...

From Philadelphia -- According to the US Federal Highway Administration, the official practice is that non-motorized pictograms are depicted with the subject moving from the outside of the road to the inside of the road -- deer, cattle, moose, ducks, pedestrians, bikes. Of course, the imagery does not work for bikes, which are not crossing the road but are traveling along the road.

Rhode Long said...

In the UK all images of bikes on signs or road markings show the bike the "wrong" way, from right to left. This may explain all...!

Jeremy said...

I find the right-to-left orientation friendlier because this is the way I get on the bike. I also think that, as a sharrow, it's more assertive, signalling to car drivers that a bike may be moving into traffic rather than away from traffic.

Alaa said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Alaa said...

Hi, i think if you look at the crossing children sign, you will see that children have been crossing from right to left since this is how you will see the sign while driving in your car where you drive on left hand side of the car(like in denmark) it might be inspired by that (sadly), although children might be crossing both ways (a bit absurd isn’t it )

on the other hand imagine you are riding on a bike you would mostly ride on the right hand side of the road and again if you project your picture on a building wall on your right you will always be heading from right to left, this is how an adjacent car driver to your left will see you, sadly again it is inspired by the way traffic people have their sign convention in mind,

conversely if signs had pedestrians as a priority then when walking on the right hand side you will see the bicycle moving from left to right,

i think when normal people look from the side walk, building windows, façades etc... or traffic engineers look from car windows