A recent incident involving an elderly man in Guangdong province inadvertently entering a women's restroom due to confusion over English signage on the lavatory in a shopping mall has ignited a heated discussion online.
Following the incident, the mall issued an apology and subsequently revamped its restroom signage.
The incident led netizens to share their encounters with perplexing restroom signage in public spaces such as malls, hotels, tourist attractions and hospitals.
Online posts on social media began to mount, showcasing a wide array of bewildering restroom symbols: Some signs feature geometric combinations, such as upward or downward triangles, water droplets and lines. Others showcase artistic patterns, including Peking Opera facial masks and Dunhuang murals. And still other signs in certain tourist spots and malls are written in English, creating barriers for the people who do not know the language.
Moreover, signs are often inconspicuously located, making them difficult to spot.
A woman surnamed Huang, who hails from Tongling, Anhui province, shared a post about her confusion with abstract restroom signs at a mall in Shenzhen, Guangdong.
The door above the women's restroom had a sign consisting of a dot above a triangle. Huang didn't know how to interpret this. Only after observing a woman exiting the restroom did she dare enter. Huang said in her post that there should be simpler, clearer restroom signs for patrons.
In another post, a man surnamed Yang from Shanghai said he was extremely embarrassed when he mistakenly entered a women's restroom due to unclear signage, adding that he only realized he was in the wrong place when he noticed there were no urinals.
Some netizens questioned why a simple set of "men's" and "women's" signs couldn't suffice for public lavatories. Others, however, praised the use of creative signs, saying they have special aesthetic value.
In 2016, a standard for urban public restroom designs was rolled out by the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development, but the standard did not include specific requirements for restroom signage.
Graphic designer Liu Yunhai noted that these confusing signs often appear in commercial environments such as malls and restaurants. The designs in these places often prioritize aesthetics over practicality, a trend that is becoming increasingly apparent.
For instance, many signs initially depicted men's or women's clothing as design elements but later transitioned to more abstract designs, which are distinguishable but may be incomprehensible to some groups such as the elderly.
Ding Lu, who is also a graphic designer, revealed that client demands are behind many bewildering signs. Some establishments strive hard to be unique, leading to an array of unusual designs, including restroom signage.
Hong Li, who runs an advertising company in Zhejiang province, said that typically, highly recognizable signage is preferred. However, clients sometimes request personalized designs, leading to the creation of simplistic, abstract drawings.
Additionally, some clients specify unique requirements for the materials used for restroom signage. Certain metals are difficult to process due to their hardness, resulting in the production of more simplified, abstract signs.
Professor Zhao Xiuchi, from the School of Urban Economics and Public Management at the Capital University of Economics and Business, emphasized that restroom gender signage should be clear and conspicuous and discourage overly innovative designs.
Zhao also suggested that a standard for restroom sign designs should be established, with basic gender-specific text signage being a prerequisite, and any innovations should adhere to that standard.