When symbols are just as important as good design

July 19, 2012
North American plumbing-fixture manufacturer Moen, N. Olmsted, Ohio, needed a way to communicate “hot” and “cold” around the world

Authored by:

N. Olmsted, Ohio
Edited by Leslie Gordon

North American plumbing-fixture manufacturer Moen, N. Olmsted, Ohio, needed a way to communicate “hot” and “cold” around the world. “H” and “C” don’t work in Hindi and a thousand other languages. The graphic symbols we came up with were easily understood worldwide: snowflake for cold and a sun for hot. And for warm, we put the two together. Today these icons are used on Moen fixtures around the world.

The Moen project is an example of user interface and user experience in the industrial- design profession. User-interface (UI) design must focus on users experience and interaction. The goal of UI design is to make users’ interactions as simple and efficient as possible. Good UI design emphasizes goals and completing tasks and never draws more attention to itself than enforcing user goals.

User-experience (UX) design, on the other hand, incorporates aspects of psychology, anthropology, sociology, computer science, graphic design, and cognitive science. Depending on the purpose of the product, UX may also involve content-design disciplines such as communication design, instructional design, or medical design. In terms of UX, the Moen project was a challenge. Moen has more than 50 product finishes and 25 product styles needed for the design. Plus, the application is used in a harsh setting with daily traffic. Minerals in water, abrasive bathroom cleaners and brushes, and shampoos and body wash add to the complexity for a good design. Also, Moen wanted to cut costs by limiting product SKUs warehoused globally.

At the start of the project, Moen used the letters “H” and “C” and their equivalent globally. After our usability-research study, we determined that a visual language comprising symbols would be better understood than letters. We tried different symbols in focus groups using eye tracking. A snowflake symbol for cold and a sun symbol for hot connected with users the best.

We branded and added perceived value to the symbols by stylizing them. For example, the sun is not generic but celestial in appearance to give the feel of a luxury spa. As a result, Moen gets higher profit margins because products look more expensive but really cost less to manufacture. The icons have been pad-printed in color, embossed by laser etching, and stamped in different materials, depending on the product’s style. The material has also been plated, powder coated, and bronzed. To insure consistent high-quality current and future parts, we delivered guidelines to Moen employees and part suppliers.

Indications are that consumers appreciate these symbols. Here are just a few comments found today on plumbing e-commerce stores: “I chose Moen’s shower product strictly for the engraved sun and snowflake design.” And, “It was a surprise to see the sun and snowflake etched on the dial, which adds a bit of charm to the piece.”

The takeaway: Great industrial designers know how to make user operation simple and something look good.

© 2012 Penton Media, Inc.

About the Author

Leslie Gordon

Leslie serves as Senior Editor - 5 years of service. M.S. Information Architecture and Knowledge Management, Kent State University. BA English, Cleveland State University.

Work Experience: Automation Operator, TRW Inc.; Associate Editor, American Machinist. Primary editor for CAD/CAM technology.

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