Why danger symbols can’t last forever

You probably know how this symbol is supposed
to make you feel. And this one. This one too, even if you’re not sure exactly
what it means. But what about this? This symbol — The Jolly Roger — was once
one of the most feared symbols in the world. It represented death, pirates, and poison. But today, it’s associated more with treasure, blockbuster
movies, or Halloween than actual danger. We are surrounded by icons that warn us: what
to stay away from, what not to do, what to be afraid of. But how do you design a symbol in a way that
will last across generations and languages? It turns out that is an incredibly hard thing
to do. Back in the early 20th century, there was
an urgent need for a new kind of warning symbol. At the time, there was no universal standard
for communicating the presence of dangerous biological materials. Laboratories at the US Army used an inverted
blue triangle. Those at the Navy used a pink rectangle. The Universal Postal Convention used a white
staff-and-snake on a violet background. There was no consistency in the visual language
used to communicate risk. That was dangerous, and could lead to accidental
infections. So in 1966, a group of engineers and designers
at Dow Chemical set out to create the best possible icon for biohazardous materials. They laid out six design criteria. First, it needed to be visually striking,
so that it would draw immediate attention. That ruled out simple shapes like those from
the Navy and Army. It also had to be unique and unambiguous,
in order not to be confused with symbols used for other purposes. That ruled out the snake-and-staff, which
has multiple versions and has a pretty vague meaning as a general symbol for medicine. On top of that, it had to be quickly recognizable
and easily recalled. Had to be easy to stencil. And rotationally symmetrical, in order to
appear identical from all angles. And lastly, it had to be acceptable to groups
of all backgrounds. So the Dow Chemical team designed an experiment. Charles Baldwin, an environmental health engineer
behind the experiment, said that the team “wanted something that was memorable but
meaningless … so we could educate people as to what it means.” They showed a set of 24 symbols to 300 people
from 25 American cities. There were 6 newly-designed biohazard markers,
and 18 common symbols — things like Mr. Peanut, the Texaco star, the Shell Oil symbol,
the Red Cross, and a swastika. Participants were asked to guess the meaning
of each one, which was used to assign each one a “meaningfulness score.” A week later, the same participants were shown
those original 24 symbols, plus 36 more. They were asked to identify which symbols
they remembered seeing in the previous round of the study. Among the six competing biohazard designs,
this one stood out. It scored the highest in memorability, but
the lowest in meaningfulness. So it was unforgettable, but also a totally
blank slate for designers who wanted to give it meaning. And with that, it became a national standard. It’s easy to overlook how much visual communication
work these symbols are doing. They’re simple — you only need a straightedge
and a compass to recreate them. And unlike most other hazard symbols, they
don’t reference an existing physical object or idea. But they’ve remained iconic for decades,
helping people recognize serious dangers that may remain a threat for thousands of years
to come. And that raises the question: could the meaning
of those symbols stand the test of time? Few people have pondered that question quite
like Gregory Benford. He’s a physicist and science fiction author. In the 1990s, he was invited to work on the
Waste Isolation Pilot Project, or WIPP. The WIPP is a massive storage site for radioactive
waste in the southeastern plains of New Mexico, organized by the US Department of Energy. Benford was brought in to help calculate the
probability that someone or something would intrude on the site for as long as it remains
dangerous — approximately the next 10,000 years. “Well, name anything that has persisted
for 10,000 years. Any institution. There isn’t any. The record is probably something like the
Catholic Church or the core of the Jewish religion, which tells us something about what
really lasts.” The meaning of a symbol can change over time. Like the Jolly Roger, which wouldn’t work
for the radioactive threat at the WIPP. “If you’re approaching the WIPP facility and
you see a skull and crossbones you might think, ‘Hey this is where the pirates buried their
treasure.’” So how do you indicate a long lasting danger
across any language? Since the 1970s, engineers, anthropologists,
physicists, and behavioral scientists have proposed different solutions to that problem. One strategy was to add context to the symbol. By illustrating cause and effect in a three-part
cartoon like this, designers could communicate the idea even if the symbol lost its meaning. But this kind of visual communication still
made a lot of assumptions about the user: that they would read left to right, that they
would understand causality between frames — and, of course, that the drawing itself
would last millennia of wear and tear. So other designers started to focus on creating
a warning without inscribed communication, by altering the shape of the location itself. And that yielded designs like this. Spike fields, forbidding blocks, giant pyramids:
these designs capitalized on natural instincts of fear and discomfort to keep people away. But even then, they weren’t foolproof. Designers couldn’t be sure whether they
would be perceived as terrifying or fascinating. “Conflict between these two urges: you want
people to notice it but you don’t want people to go there. Those are always going to fight each other.” So without symbols, without basic illustrations,
or physical structures, how can you effectively communicate a warning? That’s where the more philosophical design
solutions come in. In 1984, the German Journal of Semiotics published
a series of solutions from various scholars. Linguist Thomas Sebeok proposed creating an
atomic priesthood, where an exclusive political group would use its own rituals and myths
to preserve information about the radioactive areas. And philosophers François Bastide and Paolo
Fabbri proposed to genetically engineer bioluminescent cats that would glow in the presence of radioactivity. By creating songs and traditions about the
danger of glowing cats, the warning could last as long as the oldest relics of civilization
we have: culture. There’s no definitive solution for warning
people far into the future. But designing clear, inclusive symbols will
continue to be a fundamental part of how we keep people safe. We will change, and so will the ways we communicate
visually. Our warning symbols will have to change along
with us.

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