How Do We Understand Each Other?
Navigating the world's linguistic babble has been one of the great feats of design.
Navigating the world's linguistic babble has been one of the great feats of modern graphic design. Since early in the 20th century, when it became clear that visual signs could be used as detours around countless linguistic roadblocks, progressive designers have developed accessible graphic icons-mini-logos-to identify everything from restrooms to minefields.The first universal symbols, introduced in 1936 and called Isotypes-an acronym for "International System of Typographic Picture Education"-were invented by the Austrian philosopher Otto Neurath and the artist Gerd Arntz. They aimed to communicate essential information (like the location of a hospital or a police station) to people-rich and poor, literate and illiterate-in an unfettered way. Their invention was the starting point for this age of modern pictograms.Airport signs employ a universal design language that doesn't require specific knowledge of any dialect or culture.Other symbols-based in part on Isotype designs-were often used in public venues and at international events like the Olympics, but, noting the lack of an international norm, a committee of designers from the American Institute of Graphic Arts evaluated the various styles, and integrated them into a final symbolic Esperanto for indicating services and events (AIGA has made them available copyright-free). In 1979, these images were standardized when the AIGA and the U.S. Department of Transportation produced 50 "symbol signs" designated for airports and other transportation hubs.-STEVEN HELLER