Let’s Talk Bilingual Signs

9 months ago by

This article was originally written and published over on Maynard Design.

In this article, the team at Maynard share their thoughts and insight around bilingual signage, answering the question – how do signs with multiple languages impact people’s experiences?


Last week in Aotearoa New Zealand was Te Wiki o te Reo Māori, or Māori Language Week. It provided the perfect opportunity to talk about languages on signs. A majority of public-facing signs in Aotearoa are presented in English, but this status-quo is being challenged. There are currently two parallel conversations occurring: Firstly, how do signs with multiple languages impact people’s experiences? Secondly, what is the socio-political process deciding whether this change in language representation should occur? As designers we can answer the former through testing and iteration. We can help focus the latter by separating out what is opinion drawn from bias, and what is measurable.

Put simply, bilingual signs communicate in two languages.

We all come across multi-lingual communications daily – from the safety label on a bottle of shampoo to the ingredients of a chocolate bar. In some cases, this extends to the built environment, where a situation may require signs be presented in two or more languages. In Aotearoa over the past year, there has been increased public attention paid to bilingual signs. This has largely been spurred by new road sign designs released for consultation by Waka Kotahi, the New Zealand Transport Agency. The new sign strategy proposes that te reo Māori – the Māori language – is included on all road signs for the first time. This follows the previous use of some Māori language on signs such as those announcing schools.

Image of bilingual ferry signage
Render image of bilingual signage in a subway

Why bilingual signs? 

While there are several different reasons to employ signs with more than one language, they usually fall into one of two categories. Firstly, they might be employed to extend the reach of communications to those who don’t speak a main local language (e.g. by incorporating another widely spoken language on signs in an airport). Secondly, they may be employed to improve the visibility of an additional local language (e.g. by adding Irish language to traffic signs in Ireland). In the first instance, the sign system is designed to improve safety and efficiency by introducing familiarity to unfamiliar scenarios. In the second instance, the sign system is designed to support the daily use of local or indigenous languages by widening their visibility in the public space. In Aotearoa, the inclusion of Māori language onto road signs falls into the second instance.

At Maynard, we help people navigate the built environment. We call this wayfinding – the planning, strategy and design of systems that help people get about. Signs play a central role in wayfinding. In this context, we don’t just consider what they look like, we consider people’s journeys in their entirety to ensure their experience is logical, inclusive and connected. While this does often include graphic design elements such as colour, type and materiality; more fundamentally, it also includes conceptual elements such as, intuitiveness, legibility, cognitive loading and cultural context.

Where cultural context is involved, politics follows

Conversations over identity are important to have. Our identity evolves with us as we learn and share experiences. Language is a fundamental building block for cultural exchange. It is the medium through which much of our knowledge and identity is expressed. Signs are among the most visible ways in which we interact with language daily. For this reason, every one of us has a vested interest in participating in conversations about how languages are seen in the environment.

Globally, the introduction of additional local languages onto signs has often generated controversy. In Wales, the inclusion of the Welsh language onto street signs saw politicians and their constituents aligning themselves either for-or-against changes to the status quo. In 2011, this led to the removal of Welsh language from signs in some locations even as it was being incorporated as a standard.

Here in Aotearoa, we are still grappling with the long tail of our colonial heritage. Discussions on the status of Māori language, rights or customs are often accompanied by political dialogue. Waka Kotahi’s new bilingual road sign system was no exception to this rule. After the release of the new sign system the response was immediate, with Simeon Brown, a parliamentarian from the Eastern-Auckland electorate of Pakuranga, setting out his stall in stating: “Signs need to be clear. We all speak English, and they should be in English… as it’s going to be confusing if you add more words”.

Are bilingual signs actually more difficult to read?

Bilingual sign systems can be tested in real-world scenarios. Locations with similar post-colonial contexts to Aotearoa have seen bilingual signs tested for cognition, safety and comprehension. International testing has answered many questions around bilingual sign use: That there is little difference between reading times for signs in two languages, but that difference grows with the amount of content; that bilingual signs where each language is presented in visually different ways show no increased risk to safety of drivers; and that bilingual signs might cause drivers to slow down to read more than signs with one language do, an effect that lingers after the sign has been passed.

Image of two women in fluro pointing to bilingual train signage
Multilingual signage for welcome centre at a Mosque.

Maynard have been on a journey to figure this out too…

At Maynard, we are regularly involved in user testing programmes to ensure our strategies are fit-for-purpose. This testing has included bilingual signs in a local Aotearoa context. We’ve discovered there is a difference between people’s opinions on a bilingual sign, and whether that sign actually works: In one instance a test participant regularly questioned why we placed Māori language ahead of English on signs, suggesting they would be hard to understand, all the while flawlessly completing a complex set of navigational tasks. We’ve also found that people who speak neither Māori or English will often struggle with differentiating information on bilingual signs where there is similarity between languages; and that variations in style between languages such as colour, text weight and location does produce different results in task-based testing — either improving or reducing comprehension of bilingual content on signs, depending on how they were applied.

Where does that leave us?

As designers it isn’t our place to resolve the issues resulting from Aotearoa’s long and complicated history of decolonisation, but we can take some of the heat out of the debate by testing statements made in the public forum against evidence and best practice. In this regard, due to extensive testing performed internationally and our own locally, we can state with confidence that where bilingual signs are well designed with clear visual difference between languages, and where there is an efficient strategy for managing the amount of content presented, that most people won’t be confused by the addition of more words to signs.


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