A graphic language for RFID

This is a design brief, one of many themes that the Touch project is investigating.

The dashed line

RFID is being used for an increasing number of interactions with everyday infrastructures. From travelcards, keyless entry, passports and micropayments to content downloads, smart posters and digital wallets on mobile phones. Attempts have been made to represent these interactions graphically from isolated groups in academic, commercial or technical contexts. No clear or definite language has emerged.

How do we visualise RFID-based interactions?

There may be two initial ways of approaching this. The first approach is to think about the act or the action of the interaction: how do we invite users to touch, swipe or otherwise interact with RFID? Are there abstractions here that could allow all RFID interactions to come under one ‘brand’?

The second approach is to think about what the interaction will do, the verb. Here you could think about purchasing, opening, closing, downloading and identifying. How do we represent those in a consistent and useful way? By looking into existing NFC research and documentation you can see the kinds of use-cases that are being designed with NFC.

The project might also consider the physical form of RFID readers and writers in the environment. How might we redesign a ticketing machine or payment terminal with an NFC interface rather than traditional payment and selection interfaces? What is the optimum location, form and placement of an RFID reader for key access for instance. This might cross over into the other brief: RFID access control.

Detailed brief

This is a more detailed brief developed with Schulze & Webb in collaboration with Nokia Research. Its purpose is to create a context for graphic designers to create icon systems for RFID. It has been used at Central St Martins with graphic design students and at AHO with industrial design students.

Purpose of this project

In this project we want to design and test a range of icons that explain important aspects of RFID-based interactions. How do we visualise the presence of RFID? Are there useful ways of representing the kinds of interactions and functions involved? Is the job of the icon to indicate the active field, the verb, or the technology? At a different level, do we also need approachable graphics to alleviate anxiety, confusion or frustration? Do users know what the limits of the system are and do they care?

There are three things to consider in each case:

  • Context around the task
  • Content of the interaction
  • Risk of the interaction

    The key question here is what elements of this can we take for granted, and what should be represented in an icon? Ideally the icons should say as little as possible, to retain simplicity and to not get in the way in the case of repeated exposure. So the task is about creating clear signs that consider context, content and risk.

    If we take the example of an NFC purchase interaction (a till or cash register), will users know whether the transaction involves giving or receiving? Will they intuitively know the risk involved? Where does the content (the amount of money) get represented?

    The graphic deliverable

    For testing we need six to ten variations of each theme:

    Generic icons

  • Abstractions and actions for ‘branding’ NFC
  • Characters
  • Metaphors


  • Give, pay, upload, submit share, print
  • Receive, download, sync
  • Identify, open


    The deliverable includes all the icons laid out in their categories on A3 pages, with equal spacing.

    Each icon also needs to be printed on it’s own card, 10cm across, which is roughly equivalent to the range of an RFID tag.

    The icons need to work at a distance of 2-3 metres. The resolution of lines, fills and in particular cross-hatching or shading needs to take this into account. Black and white plus a few halftones should be the most commonly used shades, the use of colour will need to be very restricted, and if used, it must be in a common palette that can be applied across a wide range of icons.

    Ideally you will have scanned images of all sketches with descriptions of the process used in their creation for future publications.

    Questions to resolve through the design, testing and iteration:

  • Do people understand what the icons mean?
  • Is there a difference between nearness and touch, does it matter?
  • Can people interpret a system of signs as similar yet different? Can people infer from this the right action, but the correct differences in function?
  • Can people identify risk from icons where appropriate?
  • Do people feel confident using the same tools for spending as they do for personal data?
  • Are there more verbs that we should investigate that are not in the standard set of pay, open, download, print and share?
  • Over an array do they identify the RFID icons consistently against other communication icons which are not connected? (against some dummies that we’d produce) measure “enough uniqueness”
  • Do people respond differently to characters, does that help recognition?
  • Can some icons be too generic? Could an icon for share be confused with pay for instance, and does this need to be clarified?
  • More questions will surely emerge during design and testing.


    A graphic language for touch-based interactions. Timo Arnall. In Proceedings of Mobile Interaction with the Real World. PDF

    Mobile Interaction with Visual and RFID Tags – A Field Study on User Perceptions. Sara Belt, Dan Greenblatt, Jonna Häkkilä, Kaj Mäkelä. PDF

    Requesting Services by Touching Objects in the Environment. Jukka Riekki, University of Oulu, Timo Salminen, University of Oulu, Ismo Alakarppa. PDF

    Suggestions for Visualising Physical Hyperlinks. Pasi Välkkynen, Timo Tuomisto and Ilkka Korhonen. PDF

    Interaction Design for Visible Wireless, Noessel, C. et al., in Garfinkel, S. and Rosenberg, B., RFID: Applications, Security, And Privacy, Addison-Wesley, Reading, MA, 2006.

    Open Here, Mijksenaar, P.,Westendorp, P., Thames and Hudson, 1999. Link

    Understanding Comics, McCloud, S., Harper, 1994. Link

    Details of the RFID passport logo. Link.

    The proposed AIM RFID Emblem. Link.

    More details on Suica at Wikipedia. Link.

    The detailed RFID Brief as presented by Schulze & Webb alongside some initial RFID work. PDF

    Read more about these design briefs.

    Related things:

    1. Everyware icons (visualising ubicomp situations) In December 2005 Adam Greenfield asked me to work with him on icon concepts for his book Everyware. Here is Adam’s description of his book: “The age of ubiquitous computing is here: a computing......
    2. RFID icon based on Immaterials Jack Schulze has written up some thoughts and background on the new RFID icon based on our Immaterials’ visualisation work from last week. Download a vector file of this creative commons symbol.......
    3. Local applications and services This is a design brief, one of many themes that the Touch project is investigating. One of the most important features of NFC is that it only works at a very short range. This......
    4. NFC access control This is a design brief, one of many themes that the Touch project is investigating. RFID and NFC can be used to provide access to places in the same way as traditional keys or......
    5. Touch as interaction medium This is a design brief, one of many themes that the Touch project is investigating. In London, Tokyo, Seoul, Hong Kong and elsewhere the ‘swipe’ or ‘tap’ is already a common interaction for paying......

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One Comment

  1. Posted 28 June 2007 at 11:59 | Permalink

    So many systems that we have today could be improved by a complete redesign. Take the telephone system - if it were reimplemented today, I’d expect digital signatures to make sure I don’t get prank hospital calls, caller ID as standard, and a bunch of other features. Taking a system from analog (as buying and stocking food is today) to digital (RFID food barcodes, etc) needs a lot of future-proofing and standards design. Given how bad the IEEE are at standards, I’d give it a while before these things make it in to homes

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