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Finding a Universal Symbol for Yes for Web-Based Training Courses

  1. Pen Leavitt Bob
  2. Calendar August 23, 2011

Suppose you were me eight months ago. You were in charge of designing a web-based training course on business ethics for a large financial company. This course was scheduled to be translated into ten languages. One of the activities in this course asked learners to answer “Yes” or “No” to a series of questions. Because there is little space available, these buttons required you to use symbols instead of text.

What symbols would you use to represent “Yes” and “No”?

This was a dilemma I encountered recently. Answering this question proved to be more of a challenge than I expected.

“No” Problem

Compared to finding a universal “Yes,” finding a good “No” was easy. As it turns out, there’s an ISO standard for the No symbol.  This red circle with a slash through it, sometimes called the “Ghostbuster” by our graphics department, is defined in ISO 3864, an international standard governing design principles for safety signs and safety markings.

While a training course isn’t a traffic sign, the No symbol is widely used in non-traffic settings (such as “No smoking” and “Do not iron” symbols). With the backing of the International Organization of Standardization and with this usage being common, I felt confident that learners in both Japan and Italy would understand that this symbol represents “No.”

Risky “Yes” Icons

Unlike “No,” there is no ISO standard for “Yes.” Also, with a few Google searches, it became clear that many of the symbols frequently used for “Yes” in North America have different meanings in other cultures. And often these meanings are offensive.

To illustrate this, take a look at the chart below to see what I found out about a few common “YES” symbols.



Indicates an error/“No” in many countries, including:


  • Some European countries (e.g., Finland and Sweden)
  • Puerto Rico
  • Japan


Thumbs Up Icon



Offensive in many areas of the world, including:


  • Iran
  • West Africa
  • South America
  • Sardinia
A-OK Gesture Icon


Offensive in many areas of the world, including:


  • Several middle and southern European countries
  • Turkey
  • Venezuela
  • Mexico
  • Brazil

What Symbols to Use?

For my course the client decided to go with the lesser of three evils and chose the “Checkmark” icon for “Yes”. I think this was a good choice, as this only posed a possible risk to the Japanese translation of the course.

After giving the issue more thought, I wondered if one possible universal symbol for “Yes” could be the smiley.

I thought of this as the “IKEA approach.” As a manufacturer of ready-to-assemble furniture, IKEA needs to print a lot of assembly instructions. To keep costs low, IKEA creates manuals with little text. This leads to the introduction of IKEA people—simplified, illustrated folk who are used to show the right way and the wrong way to do things. IKEA people frown when they lift furniture incorrectly and smile when call Ikea for help. Ikea manuals are an interesting study in visual communication. Notably, even IKEA people aren’t without controversy.

Using a smiley to represent “Yes” is not a perfect approach either. The smiley is often used to symbolize positive emotions like happiness. When confronted with a smiley button, a learner could think it means “This makes me happy” rather than “Yes.”

Furthermore, a smiley may seem a little too playful or unprofessional in a training course on compliance. You try to convince your client that his or her course needs more smileys.

Lessons Learned

After conducting this search, it became clear that I could have avoided this problem just by using simple “Yes” and “No” text. However, this was a rare situation where that solution wasn’t possible.

My search for the universal “Yes” symbol did teach me a few lessons about localization.

When we design a course that will be localized, there are a number of things to consider. These include issues like how best to export text for a translator and how to accommodate the extra layout space that translated text can require. At AllenComm, we have a lot of experience localizing courses, so exporting and importing text is a snap. However, as designers, it’s also our responsibility to consider the cultural implications of visual media used in our training.

I’d recommend using the web as a resource to investigate the various meanings of common symbols. Also, take time to think about all the graphics and icons in your course and consider all the ways these images could be interpreted. For learning professionals, it can be valuable to your client relationship to demonstrate you are considerate of potential localization issues.

Comments 3

  1. Bob,
    Given the broad range of Global Learning Initiatives going on, there will be an increased need to understand these issues. Are there other words or choices we should “take a step back” to think about when developing global content? Also, I received a request for any links or resources that would be helpful and look forward to your thoughts.



  2. Hi Lynn,

    Good question. From a designer standpoint, there are a number of things to consider when developing a course that will eventually be localized. In my experience, the most important issues are design decisions that can make the course more difficult to localize. Identifying these early on in the project can save a lot of time and headaches.

    For example, when I create a course that will be localized, I avoid text-heavy layouts and graphics that contain text. This is key, for any change you need to make to the course needs to be updated in each of the languages the course is being localized into. So, if you are translating a course into ten languages, the amount of work it would take to update one graphic quickly multiplies. That’s why it’s best to think of these things early on and provide a solution that requires no revision beyond translation.

    I’ve also encountered a number of projects where cultural sensitivities are a factor that influence the design. Typically, these issues are addressed during the kickoff. Often, the client will have a contact who is located in the country that the course is being developed for. Getting feedback from this contact can provide useful information.

    When I am researching cultural etiquette, I stick to Wikipedia articles and Google searches. There are a number of books available on the topic, commonly found in the Travel section of a bookstore. Naturally, Amazon carries a bunch too: http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=cultural+etiquette&x=0&y=0

    I also check out the most visited websites for that country just to see what type of interactions our learners are used to.

    Hope that helps!,

  3. Great article!

    I’m wondering if, 8 months (or more) later, your users have expressed any preference for the checkmark, or if you have any feedback that they prefer (or would have preferred) Yes.


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