Priorities for the Japanese Economy in 2021 (January 2021): Using the COVID-19 Crisis as a Chance to Revive the Japanese Economy

Behavioral Change and Design and Symbol Standards

Senior Fellow, RIETI

1. Introduction

In this article, I describe the role of standards from the perspective of promoting human behavior change. In particular, I explain the role of the design and symbol standards. A specific example is the "COVID-19 safety stickers" issued by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, indicating that stores which display the sticker are taking measures to prevent infectious diseases [1]. Such standards on design can allow for communicating a message without having to engage in physical conversation. They are useful in conveying messages in a non-contact manner while maintaining social distancing. By its very nature, they have the essential property of being language-independent so that their meaning can be understood by anyone, regardless of their native language.

2. Functions of Designs and Symbols

Communication using symbols is characterized by being non-verbal, non-contact, non-interactive, transmitted to multiple people simultaneously, and only reachable within a limited area. These characteristics are similar to the information transmission characteristics of broadcasting.

Since the process is non-verbal, it is necessary, as a prerequisite, to define in advance the consistency between the image and the information to be communicated. In particular, the content of the information to be transmitted needs to be predefined among multiple parties. In other words, as a prerequisite for establishing standards, the relationship between design and meaning needs to be uniquely specified. This is the mechanism behind the role that standards for designs and symbols play in facilitating communication through those designs and symbols.

In classifying the types of standards, the main ones can roughly be considered (1) those related to product manufacturing and product specifications, (2) those related to methods of measuring performance, and finally (3) those related to designs and symbols, as described here. Other than these, there are standards that define specific terms that are used to describe basic concepts.

The effect of standards related to design and symbols can be found in various places in daily life. One of the most common is the emergency exit mark in buildings. This mark is universal. It has been internationally standardized by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) [2] (Note 1). In addition to this, many other similar standards play a role in public safety and security.

In standards for designs and symbols, the color scheme itself has considerable meaning in addition to the image/pattern. The ISO is also working on standards that provide guidelines for such color schemes.

3. Challenges

Successfully encouraging people to change their behavior is difficult; a third party cannot ascertain the utility that a public good or commodity represents to 100 individuals. Some behavioral changes may be trivial (changes with no substantial associated costs) to some people but others may incur considerable costs. Also, it is not possible to assess who can change their behavior without incurring costs from the outside. In such cases, the least costly policy is to provide those who can change their behavior with information to self-select and encourage them to act voluntarily. This is the role that standards for designs and symbols play in behavior change. This approach leads to behavioral changes in those who are willing to enjoy the services if they are aware that an appropriate response is being taken.

On the other hand, people who do not change their behavior at all when they are informed, or who do not change their behavior further when they receive information, cannot be the target of such policy measures. Additional policy measures are needed to make such people change their behavior (Note 2).

4. Economic analysis

In the analysis of the policy effects of standards, there has not been much policy discussion from a quantitative perspective [3][4] (Note 3). However, it can be intuitively understood from the example of emergency exits that standardized design may be useful in daily life.

One way to evaluate a standard's effectiveness is to look at how long the standard has been in effect. The higher the degree to which the standard is used, the longer the standard's effective term will be. Therefore, the effective term is considered to be meaningful in considering the importance of a standard. The effective term described here is the duration between the time a standard is formulated and the time it is withdrawn.

In previous research on the EU, the lifetime determinants of standards have been discussed through the lifetime analysis of standards by industry and country [5][6]. In recent years, the impact of the standard's type, including design and symbol standards, on the standard's lifetime has been analyzed [7]. A survival analysis on JIS standards, which are de jure standards in Japan, has been conducted separately for (1) measurement standards, (2) manufacturing standards, and (3) design and symbol standards [7].

According to the results, there is a statistically significant result that standards for designs and symbols and standards for manufacturing have a similar effective term. This indicates that standards for designs and symbols have as important a role as standards for product manufacturing.

There are about 600 standards on designs and symbols within JIS. Since designs and symbols have played an essential role in the information and communication industry and the service industry, they can be considered standards that will become increasingly important in the future (Note 4).

5. Summary

Such standardized designs are effective in helping humans to act quickly. They are especially effective in allowing people to unconsciously recognize and process information that does not require particular judgment. Humans have acquired the ability to unconsciously recognize and respond to symbols through the long history of human evolution. This is called "Habituation." Human society developed by using the energy saved by habituation for other activities, mainly for overcoming difficult challenges and acquiring new knowledge and skills. This is not just a metaphor. Physically, humans consume energy (or, in biological terms, increase blood flow in the relevant areas) when they perform complex information processing, which involves exchanging electrical signals between neurons in the brain.

Standardized designs and symbols are less burdensome for information processing because their meaning is uniformly defined. They also enable the transmission of meaningful information to multiple parties at no additional cost, as in broadcasting (i.e., diminishing cost per unit). Additionally, as policy measures are selected based on cost-benefit analysis, such standards are considered a particularly effective policy tool targeting people who are likely to change their behavior after receiving information due to the low cost of information transmission.


Portions of the author's previous articles cited in this column were supported by JSPS Grant-in-Aid for Scientific Research (15K03718: PI, Suguru TAMURA). This column's research was also supported by JSPS Grants-in-Aid for Scientific Research (19K01827 PI: Suguru TAMURA).

December 24, 2020
  1. ^ The proposal for this "Emergency exit" design was made by Japan and has been standardized internationally. The background of the negotiation process and technical issues is detailed below.
    Jin, T. (2015). History of the Emergency Exit Lighting Sign. Japan Lighting Manufacturers Association Journal, 3:17-23 (in Japanese).
  2. ^ For more information, see Angrist, J.D. and Pischke, J. (2015). Mastering 'Metrics: The Path from Cause to Effect. NJ: Princeton University Press, Chapter 3.
  3. ^ Details of the reasons are omitted, but for those interested, see Tamura, S. (2013). Generic definition of standardization and the correlation between innovation and standardization in corporate intellectual property activities. Science and Public Policy, 40 (2): 143-156. 4.
  4. ^ A list of JIS design and symbol standards can be downloaded from RIETI website (
  5. The content of this article corresponds to the policy content of Chapter 5 (3) "Strategic Use of International Intellectual Property and Standardization" of the Fifth Science and Technology Basic Plan (FY2016-2020).
  6. Citation method of this article: Tamura, S. (2021). Behavioral Change and Design and Symbol Standards. RIETI Column.
  7. Contact
  • Tokyo Metropolitan Government (2020). COVID-19 safety stickers.
    Retrieved from [accessed Dec. 2020].
  • [2] ISO. ISO 7010: Graphical symbols -- Safety colours and safety signs -- Registered safety signs.
  • [3] Edler, J., Georghiou, L., Blind, K., and Uyarra, E. (2012). Evaluating the demand side: New challenges for evaluation. Research Evaluation, 21: 33–47.
  • [4] Tassey, G. (2003). Method for Assessing the Economic Impacts of Government R&D. Gaithersburg, MD: National Institute of Standards & Technology.
  • [5] Blind, K. (2008). Factors influencing the lifetime of telecommunications and information technology standards. In T.M. Egyedi and K. Blind (Eds.), The Dynamics of Standards (pp.155–177). Cheltenham, U.K.: Edward Elgar Publishing.
  • [6] Cox, D.R. (1972). Regression models and life tables. Journal of Royal Statistical Society, B34: 187–220.
  • [7] Tamura, S. (2019). Determinants of the survival ratio for de jure standards: AI-related technologies and interaction with patents. Computer Standards & Interfaces (Elsevier), 66: 103332. doi:10.1016/j.csi.2019.02.005

February 5, 2021