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Want to learn how to take drugs in Amsterdam?

It’s a trick question. I’m talking about the boring kind of drug: prescriptions, and about the new drug-instruction icons from the KNMP, the Dutch pharmacists’ association.

According to the KNMP, a quarter of Dutch residents have difficulty reading and understanding the instructions that come with medicines. So the need for better communication is real.

And icons are an obvious candidate. A good icon not only gets the message across quickly, it transcends language and literacy barriers. Good icons are also eye-catching and space-efficient.

Most of these icons work well. The ones in the top row are a snap: “don’t take with food”, “take three times a day” and — well, I’ll let the last one speak for itself.

But other icons in the set seem less clear. The first one on the bottom is clearly about heartburn, but is that what the drug treats or is it a possible side effect? The still-life of fruits left me buffaloed: suitable for vegetarians? (Wrong: it’s trying to say the drug contains extra vitamins.)

And the last one is just bizarre. At first I thought I was supposed to hold the phone up to a very odd-looking ear.

That didn’t seem right, but looking closer only yielded the conclusion that I should hold the phone up to a snake drinking out of a bowl. If I saw a snake doing that, I’d hold up my phone all right, but only to take a picture. You don’t see that every day.

Eventually, I figured it out. It means “call your pharmacist”. The snake and bowl are a reference to the famous “Bowl of Hygeia” symbol. (And yeah, I had to look that up.)

So should the KNMP have looked for better icon designers? Not really. The designs themselves are excellent. The problem is with the assignment. There are many concepts, even some very simple ones, that no icon can get across. And some of those concepts were in this assignment.

That, more than anything, reveals the secret of using icons successfully. Always use them for things they do well. The rest of the time, resist them like a plague of bowl-sipping snakes.

Click to see this column in the October 2015 issue of Discover Benelux.