Signage language: helping Rohingya refugees find their way

Bangla: সাইনবোর্ডের ভাষা: ক‍্যাম্পের ভেতরে রোহিঙ্গা শরণার্থীদের…রাস্তা খুঁজে পেতে সাহায‍্য করার জন‍্য

Signage in Rohingya Refugee camps feature photoHere is a question we asked Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh:

Oney ki kemfor modotor ghoror sainbudhgin buzonne?” 

Having some trouble understanding what this question means?  

Well, you’re not alone. The majority of refugees we asked, over 80%, would also have trouble answering this question, but for a different reason. 

We’ll revisit this question again in a moment. First, it is important to note the levels of illiteracy amongst Rohingya refugees. The low levels stem partly from the fact that Rohingya is a verbal language, with very limited use of it in written form in any alphabet. Even with English, the most popular written language amongst the community, only 31% of those we spoke to recently can read it. Their ability is mostly at a basic level, with almost half of those reading only numbers or recognizing letters. This makes communicating information using signs very challenging.  Information must be provided in forms that are understandable to those who need it. But what if this illiteracy also applies to western forms of graphics as well as written languages? Where arrow symbols, emojis, and pictograms are as hard to interpret as French or Japanese to Rohingya refugees? How then do we create visual signs to show people the way without using established graphic standards and words?  

What was the question?

The question put to you earlier –Oney ki kemfor modotor ghoror sainbudhgin buzonne?” – translates to “Do you understand the signage for services in your camp?” The answer was a resounding “no!” for 65% of those surveyed (261 out of 404).

Finding your way… through the camps (or not)

This is the problem Translators without Borders was asked to look at within the sprawling refugee camps of Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh. Since 2017 these camps are home to more than 850,000 Rohingya refugees. They also accommodate more than 130 national and international organizations and agencies offering assistance to the Rohingya community. Meeting the needs of a city-sized population of close to a million people is no easy feat. Like all “city” populations, the residents of these refugee camps need a range of services to meet their daily needs. Locating these services can be a challenge. There are no smartphones with Google Maps or street maps. Residents are not allowed to access the internet, nor are there detailed street directories or maps of the camps. So, maybe they should just follow the signs? Not if you do not understand these either.

Services such as medical clinics, food distribution centers and information hubs are scattered throughout tens of thousands of makeshift homes and buildings. Each must be found by navigating the maze of thousands of roads and alleys which snake through the camps. Making your way from point A to point B is not always straightforward, including when it comes to critical and even lifesaving services such as hospitals. While the camps are littered with signs, these come in a variety of format, style, color, and language combinations, many of which lead to confusion. The camp management staff who work in the camps had observed something problematic: many camp residents were getting lost. They saw a need for clear directional signage to guide residents to their destinations and, as it turns out, so did the community.  

What did we do?

In January 2019, we set out to find out what was going on with signage in the camps. Our goal was to work with the community to develop signs they understand. The research focused on developing signs for the following key services and facilities: 

  • health centers/hospitals/clinics
  • information hubs
  • women safe spaces
  • child-friendly spaces 
  • nutrition centers
  • food distribution centers

The research aims to influence site management agencies to adopt a consolidated approach to the design of signage, based on community-identified needs and preferences. The research included observational field visits, pre- and post-design focus group discussions (FGDs), and a discussion group with camp managers and the site management sector working group. We tested comprehension of sign prototypes, and conducted a pre-pilot baseline study. 

The FGDs explored the community’s color, content, and language preferences and their knowledge of forms, shapes, and logos. They also explored their understanding of time and distance, and their relevant cultural sensitivities around imagery. Throughout the research process, we worked with graphic designers to develop improved directional signage the community understands. 

What do the numbers tell us about the need for better signage?

The Rohingya community confirmed the need for improved signage in the camps at various stages of the research. In January 2020 we asked 404 camp residents how often they used existing signs to locate services and facilities in the camps. We found that

  • 45% answered “never” 
  • 12% answered “rarely” 
  • 15% answered “occasionally”
  • 6% answered  “some of the time”
  • 6% answered “often”
  • 16% answered “all of the time”.

We also asked the respondents if they had faced difficulties reading/following existing signage for services in the camp. We found that:

  • 60% answered “yes”
  • 5% reported knowing others who had experienced difficulties 
  • 89% indicated that better signage would make it easier for them to locate services in the camps 
  • 91% said that better signage would increase the likelihood of them using services. 

In response to the same question during comprehension testing with 179 community members in October 2019, 97% responded the same way. During that survey, over 99% (178 out of 179) reported that better signage would make it easier or more convenient for them to access services.

The signs of the time

Our team observed and photographed a variety of signage formats and designs in the camps for the six service types targeted. The majority of signs provide information in text only, predominantly in English, sometimes accompanied by Bangla and/or Burmese translations. Our team immediately found some obvious trends:

  • English is the most popular language
  • Organization logos take prominence (way too much- some signs even contained 6 large logos)
  • Arrows give directions
  • Approximately 80% of the signs were in English and contained no icons or images (aside from the organization logos), even though  only 30% of refugees can read them 
  • Where there was directional signage, there was little follow-through on the directions at key intersections and crossroads, making the trail hard to follow
  • Icons or images are not used to signify specific services
  • There is little consistency in signage, including correlations between directional signage and the signs on the actual facilities. 

Our observations in four camps confirmed most of the signs are not designed in a way that communicates information to the Rohingya community, especially those with low or no literacy. 

What did the research tell us?

To develop our sign prototypes  researchers from TWB worked with site management staff, members of the Rohingya community, and graphic designers. Through the focus group discussions and other consultations, we identified a variety of community preferences about how signs should be designed.

  • Specific colors are often associated with specific organizations (e.g. blue for the United Nations and pink for BRAC). 
  • For those who cannot read, color is often the best or only way of interpreting signage, especially when there are no pictorial aides and so at least some color is still preferred. 
  • The community indicated a preference for designs with contrast – light-colored text/graphic content on dark backgrounds increases readability.
  • During final prototype testing, 100% of participants (179) indicated a preference for signs with a colored border around the central picture.
Where and when

  • Arrows were not popular with focus group participants. 
  • Participants preferred an image of a pointing finger to indicate direction. 
  • In the final testing of the sign prototype, 93% of all respondents correctly determined the direction using the image of a pointing finger. 
  • A finger pointing down was also preferred by 76% of participants to indicate arrival at a destination, as opposed to two open hands.
  • Communicating the number of minutes to arrive at a destination proved challenging – all variations tested poorly. 
  • In line with participant literacy levels, 54% of respondents in final prototype testing could identify the time required to reach the destination.
here sign_ BGL Signage blog_ Apr 2020

Not surprisingly, text/script is useful to those who can read. 

  • Burmese and English are the most widely understood written languages.
  • The overwhelming majority of community members cannot read Bangla. There is also opposition from authorities to including Bangla in signs.

format image

Unpopular image designs;
participants preferred realistic drawings

  • Realistic drawings of people using the service were by far the most popular image style. 
  • 83% of people consulted during prototype testing preferred signs that combined drawings/cartoons and text.
  • Less than 3% preferred signage with text (letters/script) only.
  • Photographs were not popular (89.4% did not prefer photos). 
  • Simplified images (or emoji styles) of people caused confusion, with a large number of participants associating these with ghosts. 
  • Ninety percent of respondents in final prototype testing reported looking at the picture to understand the meaning of the sign. 

image designs

Finally, a sign of progress!

Women safe space sign

Women Friendly Space: one of our final sign prototypes

In response,  our graphic designers working with TWB researchers suggested this sign.  It is one of the six signs developed based on the preferences and needs of the Rohingya community living in the camps. The design incorporates community-tested pictorial communication (life-like diagram, pointing finger), as well as information in Burmese and English for those who can read these languages. Although this sign appears simple, it is specially designed for one community who, like all communities, have complex and specific communication needs. 

All community members consulted during the testing of the final prototype of this sign said that it would be helpful (97% “very helpful”, 3% “helpful”) if signage in this format was used in their camps. Preparations for pilot testing of signs for the six services in four camps is under way, with findings from the pilot test expected in mid-2020. 

Here’s to helping Rohingya refugees finally find their way through the camps!

Written by Peter Squires, Evidence and Impact Officer for the Rohingya Response, Translators without Borders