If you search for ‘using flags to represent languages’, you’ll get a swathe of wisdom as to why this is a really bad idea. This really bothers me whenever I see it; which unfortunately is really quite often. I blogged about a language selection screen in the Steam client last year which again fell into the trap of presenting users with a selection of flag icons in order to choose their language.
I went to the Tate site today and a little UN-style gathering of flags caught my attention.
What really bothers me about what the Tate have done here is that they’ve obviously put some thought into this design decision, but the logic behind the decision is broken.
They’ve realised that using the Chinese flag for Chinese might be a bit politically sensitive (to say people form Taiwan or Singapore) and that there is no standard recognisable flag for Arabic — so while Arabic and Chinese are presented as the name of their languages, French, German, Spanish, Portuguese, Greek, Japanese and Italian users are given flags.
Swiss users in particular must love this scenario: they must choose the French, German or Italian flags (or stick with the English!).
Why not just list all the languages like you did with Chinese and Arabic?
I wonder if there’s some obsession with flags that overrides the logic behind such a decision. A few possible thoughts:
- we love flags because they’re graphical and a strong visual metaphor
- they take up less space on the screen, therefore are seen as advantageous
- they’re seen as ‘instantly recognisable’ therefore being more usable
- we don’t want to ‘confuse’ other users by showing scripts/languages they won’t understand
Any other thoughts as to what is behind this enduring phenomena?
The reasons that make flags such powerful and strong symbols are exactly why they’re so bad for representing languages: you are coercing users into identifying with another country in order to proceed to content in their native language.