A Road Sign for Wireless
By Jeff Goldman, Fri Jun 13 15:30:00 GMT 2003

The popularity of wireless access is growing rapidly, but there's no universal icon to indicate its presence. What will it take for one to succeed?

In the summer of 1971, Ray Tomlinson invented email. Using an @ symbol to connect the name of a user to the name of a host machine, he sent the first message to a remote mailbox. He chose the symbol for one simple reason: it doesn't appear in any names, so it can't be confused with other characters in an address.

Decades later, the symbol Tomlinson selected has become a universal icon for Internet access: if you see an @ symbol posted over the entrance to a café, you can assume that location will offer access to the Internet. But there's no universal icon for wireless.

There is a pressing need for such an icon. When traveling, there's no way to know where wireless access is available without searching an online database, which itself requires access to the Internet. What symbols might serve as road signs to identify access locations, and what will it take to get those symbols accepted?

A Grassroots Option

One popular icon for wireless access is the "warchalking" symbol for an open node, created last summer by designer Matt Jones. Jones says he quickly sketched the symbol, which looks a lot like )(, after a discussion with friends about the need for such an icon.

Despite its simplicity, Jones says there were some key principles at play in choosing the design. "First, it had to be language-independent," he said. "Second, it had to be a quick symbol to draw. And third, there's a kind of anthropomorphic resonance to it: it looks like an open, outstretched human figure."

As a designer, he adds, he was interested in exploring how such a symbol could be distributed. "I wanted to see if I could open source a design, if I could put it out there just as open source programmers put code out there," Jones said.

As a result, the symbol isn't specific to a particular wireless protocol or provider, and there's nothing proprietary about it to limit its distribution. "Nothing else has the organic speed of consensus of something that's open sourced," Jones said.

Backed by Industry

On the other hand, one propriety symbol for wireless access does have strong industry backing. The Wi-Fi Zone logo, a yin and yang style symbol surrounding the word "Wi-Fi" with the word "zone" appearing below, was developed a few months ago by the Wi-Fi Alliance.

Wi-Fi Alliance spokesperson Brian Grimm says the symbol was created in response to member requests-and in recognition of the growing popularity of the warchalking symbol, which the Alliance sought to replace with an industry-backed icon.

According to Grimm, the plan from the beginning has been to make the Wi-Fi Zone logo the universal symbol for wireless access. "Just like a knife and fork indicating that food is available, this is an international indicator to let people know that this kind of service is here," he said.

And in its push for universal acceptance, Grimm adds, the logo has a lot going for it. "People know what Wi-Fi is, and they know what it means-and the laptops and cards that they buy have that logo, or a very similar logo, on the back," he said.

Making a Mark

Still, there are limitations to both icons, says Gregory Thomas, Principal of Gregory Thomas Associates and author of the book, "How to Design Logos, Symbols and Icons." He points out that any successful logo should implicitly carry the message of the organization it's supporting.

Nothing developed so far, Thomas says, fits the bill. "Neither the Wi-Fi nor the warchalking symbol would do it, because they're too esoteric," he said. "The bottom line is that it has to communicate a little bit more what you're talking about. Neither one of those, to me, says anything about wireless."

Most importantly, a symbol has to get its message across without words. "When you see a man and woman on a bathroom door, you understand which one you're supposed to go into," Thomas said. "If it says 'hombres' and 'senoritas' and you don't know Spanish, you have a problem."

And no matter how clear a symbol may be, it needs broad industry backing from a number of different wireless organizations in order to succeed. "The main thing in developing any mark is to get buy-in by everybody," Thomas said.

Imagine every ad for a wireless service or device ending with a striking and universally recognizable symbol. With the right design and the right backing, Thomas suggests, a symbol for wireless could be much more than just a road sign: it could become a universal icon for the industry itself.

Jeff Goldman is a freelance writer covering a wide range of topics for a number of online journals. He currently writes regular articles for Internet.com's ISP-Planet. Brought up in Belgium, Jeff spent the last decade in New York, Chicago and London; he now lives in Los Angeles.