Using Icons to Overcome Communication Barriers During Emergencies: a case study of the Show Me interactive tools


  • Amina Patton
  • Morgan Griffin
  • Ana Tellez
  • Mary Ann Petti
  • Xanthi Scrimgeour


This case study reviews the development of three icon-based tools designed to help workers and volunteers during an emergency communicate with people who have communication challenges, such as limited English proficiency, deafness or hearing impairments, and cognitive delays. Using the classic human figure icons designed by the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) for the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) as a basis, we developed over 250 new icons for the tools, a dry erase booklet and two mobile applications for Apple and Android devices. We outline the challenges we faced researching, testing, and developing the icons. We also explore interactivity, animation, and the grouping of icons and suggest ways to push icon design in new directions. This project was a partnership between CommunicateHealth, a health communication company in Northampton, MA, and the Massachusetts Department of Public Health (MDPH), Office of Preparedness and Emergency Management.

Author Biography

Amina Patton

Amina Patton, MGD, is a user experience designer at CommunicateHealth. She received her Masters of Graphic Design from North Carolina State University and Bachelor in Fine Arts specializing in Communication Design from Washington University in St. Louis. Her interests include systems thinking, design strategy, innovative design research methods, and designing across disciplines for social impact.;Morgan Griffin, MA, is a senior editor at CommunicateHealth who has worked as a health writer and editor for 14 years. His work has included app development, video scriptwriting, and e-learning courses. Before joining CommunicateHealth, Morgan was a writer and editor with WebMD for 8 years. He has a Masters in English from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.;Ana Tellez, MA, is director of interactive media at CommunicateHealth. She's responsible for leading interactive media product design strategy for clients, ranging from mobile apps to e-books to online trainings. As a project manager on a variety of interactive media projects, she leads a team of writers, graphic and UX designers, user research specialists, and developers. She also advises clients as a Subject Matter Expert (SME) on instructional technology and social media content strategy.;Mary Ann Petti, MPH, CHES, is a user experience researcher and strategist at CommunicateHealth. She received a Master's in public health from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst and is a UX certificate candidate from the New York University School of Professional Studies. Mary Ann leads user-centered design projects for CommunicateHealth clients including mobile apps, website redesigns, and interactive infographics. She was recently named one of 30 under 30 by the Society for Public Health Education for her work and commitment to the intersection of health and technology.;Xanthi Scrimgeour, MHEd, MCHES, is the co-founder of CommunicateHealth and a seasoned expert in health education and health literacy. She has contributed to the development of multiple health literacy tools and resources for professionals, including Health Literacy Online: Writing and Designing Easy-to-Use Health Web Sites (US Department of Health and Human Services, 2010). Her work synthesizes research-based recommendations from the fields of usability, health literacy, and health education.






Journal Article