Student Seeks New Direction for Map Symbols

Mofareh Qoradi

Mofareh Qoradi

As the world becomes more globalized, tourist maps must communicate with people from diverse backgrounds. But for some, symbols on maps can be confusing and unclear. One UT Dallas student has a solution. 

“If you go on the highways in Dallas, you can see the logos for organizations on the signs — for example, Super 8,” said Mofareh Qoradi, a doctoral student in geographic information sciences (GIS) at UT Dallas and a GIS lecturer at King Saud University in Saudi Arabia. 

“Maybe as an American, you know Super 8 is a hotel, but visitors don’t understand. We need a symbol to explain it.”                           

Qoradi said tourist maps are designed to facilitate the movement and improve the safety, security and comfort of tourists, but unfortunately, they do not use standardized symbols around the world. 

In Saudi Arabia, about one-third of the country’s population is non-Saudi, according to the Central Department of Statistics. People come to the country from all over the world, and many don’t understand the Arabic they see on highways and in airports and shopping centers, Qoradi said. 

This problem inspired his doctoral dissertation in which he evaluated how people from different cultures interpret various symbols commonly used on tourist maps. 

Dr. Denis Dean, dean of the School of Economic, Political and Policy Sciences, is advising Qoradi. He said he is constantly amazed by how fundamental questions in cartography, like the intercultural understandability of map symbols, must continuously be reanswered.  

“Maps are some of the oldest forms of communication used by humans. Yet despite that ancient pedigree, as human societies and cultural norms change, the symbols we use on maps must constantly change and evolve in order to remain understandable,” Dean said. “Mofareh’s work is fundamental to understanding where we are in terms of one aspect of map symbology in the present day.” 

Qoradi began by building a database of symbols used by the National Park Service and the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities. He then evaluated the understandability of the symbols by conducting online questionnaires with 183 students from UT Dallas and King Saud University. 

“I was surprised that some of the symbols from the U.S. are understood by Saudi Arabian people and not by Americans,” Qoradi said. “This is a problem.” 

Qoradi then analyzed why some symbols are understandable and others are not, based on participants’ responses. 

Two demographic factors — age and travel experience — proved to be most influential in identifying the symbols. Participants gave more correct responses when the symbols were in 3-D, black and white, and presented on a map background. 

“I think the biggest problem people face when they create maps, or study the theory of maps, is how can you design symbols to achieve the communication between the symbols and the people?” Qoradi said. “The symbols are a science. We need symbols that are easy to understand whether people have different education levels or travel experiences or ages.” 

Qoradi redesigned 19 tourism symbols that had generated less than 50 percent correct responses and then converted them for ArcGIS, a leading cartographic software program. He also created a website to support symbol sharing and dissemination of compatible symbols for familiar map programs, such as Google Maps. 

Qoradi will present his dissertation in October at AutoCarto 2014, an international research symposium on cartography, geospatial sciences and visualization. He said he hopes the study will lead to changes locally and around the world. 

“I hope Dallas changes all the signs and adds the symbols,” he said. “Many people here in Dallas speak different languages. We need all the signs in Dallas to be clear without having to read the text.” 

In Saudi Arabia, the work is more complicated, Qoradi said. Signs on highways have no symbols or logos, only text. 

“When I go back to my country, I am going to ask all the organizations to please include the symbols on signs,” he said. “We have millions of people who do not speak Arabic in my country. We need help. It’s a special country — all the Muslims in the world come to perform Hajj — and it’s important to help the visitors.”

Symbol Study 

UT Dallas doctoral student Mofareh Qoradi built a database of symbols used by the National Park Service and the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities. He then conducted online questionnaires with 183 students from UT Dallas and King Saud University to evaluate the understandability of the symbols. Here are some of the results: 

Beach Access (U.S.)Both U.S. and Saudi students struggled to identify this symbol. It was one of the symbols least identified by both groups.Correct responses: 47.37% (U.S.), 22.58% (Saudi Arabia) 

Shopping Center(Saudi Arabia)The shopping center symbol was one of the symbols correctly identified by a high percentage of both U.S. and Saudi Arabia participants.Correct responses: 96.49% (U.S.), 87.10% (Saudi Arabia) 

Embassy (Saudi Arabia)No study participants — from the U.S. or Saudi Arabia — could identify this symbol.Correct responses: 0% (U.S.), 0% (Saudi Arabia) 

Bank (Saudi Arabia)More U.S. participants had a greater understanding of this symbol than their Saudi counterparts.Correct responses: 67.12% (U.S.), 48.28% (Saudi Arabia) 

Wood Gathering (U.S.)In Saudi Arabia, wood gathering is one of the favorite hobbies for many people who go camping in the desert, Qoradi said. Results show that Americans are less familiar with the activity.Correct responses: 44.12% (U.S.), 83.33% (Saudi Arabia) 

Picnic Area (U.S.)In the U.S., the symbol, showing a table and chair, is seen in many parks, so it was familiar to U.S. participants, Qoradi said. In Saudi Arabia, most parks do not include tables and chairs, so the symbol was unclear for the Saudi participants.Correct responses: 83.64% (U.S.), 20% (Saudi Arabia) 

Media Contact: The Office of Media Relations, UT Dallas, (972) 883-2155, [email protected].

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