Do symbols speak louder than words when it comes to our attitudes to ‘the elderly’?
Our recently released age-positive icons have launched to change the negative stereotypes associated with ageing and to help us move towards a more positive, realistic image.
Our Chief Executive, Dr Anna Dixon, writes about the human connections to symbols and how the age-positive icon library is being used to change the conversation around the depiction of later life.
One of the oldest forms of human communication is the use of symbols. They remain a powerful way to present information by quickly and simply conveying meaning – a symbol is worth a thousand words. For the most part they're universal, too, and can be understood regardless of your native tongue or grasp of language. We come across symbols or icons all the time in our daily lives. These can take the shape of an arrow, envelope or speech bubble and appear on our phones, websites, leaflets and public signs.
Icons can also be used to represent people, not just concepts or abstract ideas. One of the more recognisable examples is the symbol of a stick figure using a wheelchair, typically used as a symbol for disability or wheelchair accessibility. We see it in car parks and permits, museums, and information desks to name a few. But despite the symbol's ubiquity and recognisability, there have been projects that attempt to rethink and reframe the icon, in order to challenge stereotypes of inactivity and dependence implied by the icon. There have also been questions around whether the icon represents all disabilities, especially those that are considered invisible.
Older people are often portrayed using a stick figure with hunched back and walking stick. The icon is most commonly found on road signs, warning drivers to slow down and be aware of 'elderly people'. Unsurprisingly, this road sign has caused a significant amount of controversy over recent years, and the panel on Loose Women even pitched in with their thoughts last year. Attempts have been made to influence the Department for Transport, encouraging them to reconsider the sign. A spokesperson for the Department previously responded that the sign depicts people of any age with walking difficulties and isn't specific to older people. While that may be true, it's common to still see such road signs accompanied with text that reads 'elderly'. Regardless of the intention the symbol has come to represent older people. What does this say about our attitudes to older people? That they are all frail and have mobility issues?
With more than 3 million people in the UK aged 80 and over, it is a challenge to represent this group of diverse people with a simple illustration? Symbols need to intuitively communicate a message but they risk stereotyping groups of people if they are too reductive and may even be offensive.
With that challenge in mind, we wanted to offer alternatives to the symbols often used in the context of ageing or old age. Public Health England and Ageing Better launched a competition last year inviting designers to rethink the hunched over stick figure. We received more than 120 entries, but the winning icon by SwaG Design was popular among judges and audiences because of the spirit it captured, showing a pair of older people as active and energetic.
But one icon wasn't enough. It was important to us that we portrayed diversity through a range of icons – whether that's in terms of the type of activity shown or in the people illustrated through silhouettes. The resulting icons – which are in the public domain and free to use – were created with the eight domains of age-friendly in mind, so that you can use them across a range of scenarios. The icons were finalised after we invited the views of older people, because what good are the icons if they don't represent the people they are supposed to depict?
Since launching the icons, we’ve been delighted with the positive responses we’ve received – it’s clear that many people feel it’s time for a new way of representing later life. We hope these icons will be used widely and will help challenge the stereotypes that often belie negative attitudes to ageing and older people.