See if this sounds familiar: You’re swiping your credit card at a supermarket, department store, or gas station, and the transaction doesn’t go through. So you refer back to the little illustration, realize you had your card oriented incorrectly, futz with it a bit, and finally swipe again the proper way (or at least what looks like it may be the proper way).
We’ve all been that person—and, worse, stuck on line behind that person. Why is that? After years of credit-card swiping, shouldn’t the act be second nature to us by now?
Part of the problem may lie in those illustrated directives. While some icons in our culture are fairly standardized, like for a men’s room or the recycling symbol, the infographics of credit-card swiping are all over the map. There isn’t even any consistency as to which side of the card is shown, the front or the back with the magnetic stripe. Does this represent an everyday failure of design?
"Probably," says Chris Nyffeler, design director at the California firm Ideo, whose projects have included designing gas pumps and ATMs. "I think one of the deeper challenges here is that you’re communicating in two dimensions. You have an X and Y axis, but the act of moving the card is usually along a Z axis, so that gets tricky."
Tricky, yes, but surely it shouldn’t be insurmountable. Has the credit-card industry ever tried to standardize its iconography? "Not to my knowledge," says Erik Vlugt, vice president of product marketing for VeriFone, a leading manufacturer of card-swiping devices. "We’ve tried to standardize the way the card is swiped across several generations of our terminals, so consumers will always swipe a card the same way at a VeriFone device. But we don’t have 100% market share, so other companies may have other approaches."
There is the basic fact that different manufacturers require different card orientations for their machines. Still, for the sake of clarity on the visual front, couldn’t everyone at least settle on which side to show?
"That would certainly bring some consistency," says Nyffeler, the Ideo VP, though quickly adding, "I’m not sure which side of the card would be better, though. They both have their advantages." This led into a chicken-y, eggy designers’ debate, as designers’ debates often are, especially when in the interest of restoring order. Nyffeler turned from considering the redesign of the infographics that illustrate the cards to the redesign of the actual cards. "If credit-card manufacturers were open to the idea of putting the magnetic stripe on the front of the card," he reasons, "then you’d have a nice, coherent system."
Then again, coherency may not be a universal goal. "Designers often want to not conform," says design and tech writer Rob Walker. "Like, 'If you’re going to show the back of the card, then I’ll show the front of the card.' It’s sort of like how every industrial designer wants to design a chair. It’s not as though the problem of a chair hasn’t been solved. They just like the idea of offering their own take on it."
It’s probably too late to achieve any form of swiping standardization for the current generation of credit cards. But what about EMV chip-equipped cards and smartphone-based payments, both of which should unseat magnetic strips within the next decade?
"We’ll need a system of communication symbology for those," says Nyffeler, "so maybe this is a chance to create something." Or perhaps we’ll be paying with our fingerprints or retina scans—so we’ll always know which way is up, rendering everyday transactional infographics as obsolete as credit cards.