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Everywhere a Sign: A Brief History of International Symbols

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Restroom sign via Shutterstock

You see them every day when you go to the restroom, cross the street, or look at a map. International symbols are intended to make getting around easier for anyone, regardless of their native tongue. But where do these symbols come from? Let’s take a look.

Isotype

Unlike many museums, the Social and Economic Museum of Vienna, Austria, didn’t keep historic relics or display cases full of stuffed and mounted animals. The museum, under the direction of Otto Neurath, was intended as a means to educate the people of Vienna about their city, country, and the world at-large by using quantifiable data. However, in order to make these complex sets of numbers understood by everyone, Neurath, along with artists Marie Reidemeister and Gerd Arntz, created a visual “helping language” known as The Vienna Method of Pictorial Statistics that worked to reinforce the accompanying text and statistics.

The Vienna Method worked by replacing numbers with “pictograms,” images that were representative of the things being measured. For example, to show the number of automobiles sold worldwide in 1920 and in 1926, a Vienna Method chart might use a simple drawing of a car to represent a stated 5 million automobiles. So in 1920, two illustrated cars would represent the 10 million automobiles sold. In 1926, five cars side-by-side would symbolize the 25 million cars sold. The point wasn’t to have people memorize statistics, but to simply recognize the pattern that there were more cars in 1926 than in 1920. In fact, the motto of the museum was, “To remember simplified pictures is better than to forget accurate figures.”

The Vienna Method became so popular that government organizations and other museums from across the world commissioned the museum to create charts and graphs. This assistance became so common that the museum set up foreign offices in places like Berlin, The Hague, London, and New York, which became beneficial as Fascism took hold of Austria in 1934. The three founding members were persecuted for their left-leaning politics, and managed to escape to their office in The Hague. They soon renamed the language as the International System Of TYpographic Picture Education, or “Isotype,” and continued to develop its use, creating a visual dictionary of over 4,000 Isotype graphics for posters, charts, signs, instruction manuals, and warning labels on products.

Olympic Pictograms

Pictograms have been a part of the Olympics since the 1964 Tokyo Games, when designer Masasa Katzumie created 59 symbols that could be understood regardless of the viewer’s native language. The symbols not only depicted the Games’ sporting events, but also helped direct visitors to where they needed to go. With sparse, simple lines, the symbols were heavily influenced by the Isotype language, but also ingeniously used white space to convey sports uniforms, providing just enough visual information for the brain to “complete” the picture.

The tradition of pictograms continued for the 1968 Games in Mexico City, but they saw an important evolution when German graphic designer and founder of the Ulm School of Design, Otl Aicher, created nearly 180 pictograms for the 1972 Games in Munich. Aicher’s symbols were drawn using a standardized grid, and were made up of lines that strictly followed 90 and 45 degree angles. This meant both the sports pictograms and the tourist information symbols had the same style and proportions, creating a unified visual style for the Games that no previous Olympic pictograms had possessed. Since Munich, most pictogram sets for the Olympics have used some derivative of Aicher’s grid to maintain consistency across the line.

Transportation Symbols

At about the same time that Aicher’s Olympic pictograms were unveiled, Henry Dreyfuss, the man responsible for some of the most iconic industrial designs of the 20th century including the “Princess” telephone, the folding Polaroid Camera, and the circular wall thermostat, was putting together his Symbol Sourcebook. Dreyfuss was an advocate of using symbols in place of words on industrial machinery to make the controls more universally understood, and his Sourcebook became a bible of symbols for designers to make their products safer by eliminating language barriers.

This interest in symbols led Dreyfuss to convince the U.S. Department of Transportation to work with the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) to develop a set of universal pictograms that could be used on signs in transportation hubs to assist travelers, regardless of their native languages. Fifty symbols were adopted in 1974, including many of the icons we’re familiar with today in airports and other public spaces, like the symbols for men’s and women’s bathrooms, arrows pointing the direction we need to go, a martini glass leading us to the bar, and plenty of others that you’d instantly recognize.

An important key to the adoption of these symbols was the fact that they were available for free. Now anyone could use the symbols for free to make signs, rather than hiring a graphic designer to develop new symbols that might not be as clearly understood.

The Modern Symbol

Today, most international symbols are maintained by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). Every year, new symbols are submitted to ISO by one of its own committees or ISO member organizations, such as the Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). Not only must a proposer submit a justification for the symbol, but they must also use downloadable templates for people, hands, arrows, and more, to design the symbol. Once a new design has been turned in, it’s up to one of ISO’s Technical Committees to determine if a symbol is truly international by using a battery of tests and garnering external opinions from representatives of different countries around the world. Once a symbol passes the ISO test, it becomes available to a worldwide population of industries and product makers and, symbol-wise anyway, can be said to be ISO-compliant.

However, there is some controversy when it comes to ISO because, unlike the AIGA symbols that came before, ISO symbols are not free. In order for an organization or manufacturer to use these symbols, they must pay a licensing fee, which can add hundreds to development costs. Of course this extra expense means that some companies will simply forgo these international symbols and develop their own pictograms, which may lead back to the confusion they're supposed to eliminate.

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10 Memorable Neil deGrasse Tyson Quotes
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Neil deGrasse Tyson is America's preeminent badass astrophysicist. He's a passionate advocate for science, NASA, and education. He's also well-known for a little incident involving Pluto. And the man holds nearly 20 honorary doctorates (in addition to his real one). In honor of his 59th birthday, here are 10 of our favorite Neil deGrasse Tyson quotes.

1. ON SCIENCE

"The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it."
—From Real Time with Bill Maher.

2. ON NASA FUNDING

"As a fraction of your tax dollar today, what is the total cost of all spaceborne telescopes, planetary probes, the rovers on Mars, the International Space Station, the space shuttle, telescopes yet to orbit, and missions yet to fly?' Answer: one-half of one percent of each tax dollar. Half a penny. I’d prefer it were more: perhaps two cents on the dollar. Even during the storied Apollo era, peak NASA spending amounted to little more than four cents on the tax dollar." 
—From Space Chronicles

3. ON GOD AND HURRICANES

"Once upon a time, people identified the god Neptune as the source of storms at sea. Today we call these storms hurricanes ... The only people who still call hurricanes acts of God are the people who write insurance forms."
—From Death by Black Hole

4. ON THE BENEFITS OF TECHNOLOGY INVENTED FOR USE IN SPACE

"Countless women are alive today because of ideas stimulated by a design flaw in the Hubble Space Telescope." (Editor's note: technology used to repair the Hubble Space Telescope's optical problems led to improved technology for breast cancer detection.)
—From Space Chronicles

5. ON THE DEMOTION OF PLUTO FROM PLANET STATUS 

PBS

"I knew Pluto was popular among elementary schoolkids, but I had no idea they would mobilize into a 'Save Pluto' campaign. I now have a drawer full of hate letters from hundreds of elementary schoolchildren (with supportive cover letters from their science teachers) pleading with me to reverse my stance on Pluto. The file includes a photograph of the entire third grade of a school posing on their front steps and holding up a banner proclaiming, 'Dr. Tyson—Pluto is a Planet!'"
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit

6. ON JAMES CAMERON'S TITANIC

"In [Titanic], the stars above the ship bear no correspondence to any constellations in a real sky. Worse yet, while the heroine bobs ... we are treated to her view of this Hollywood sky—one where the stars on the right half of the scene trace the mirror image of the stars in the left half. How lazy can you get?"
—From Death by Black Hole

7. ON DEATH BY ASTEROID

"On Friday the 13th, April 2029, an asteroid large enough to fill the Rose Bowl as though it were an egg cup will fly so close to Earth that it will dip below the altitude of our communication satellites. We did not name this asteroid Bambi. Instead, we named it Apophis, after the Egyptian god of darkness and death."
—From Space Chronicles

8. ON THE MOTIVATIONS BEHIND AMERICA'S MOONSHOT

"[L]et us not fool ourselves into thinking we went to the Moon because we are pioneers, or discoverers, or adventurers. We went to the Moon because it was the militaristically expedient thing to do."
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit

9. ON INTELLIGENT LIFE (OR THE LACK THEREOF)

Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/n/neildegras615117.html
Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/n/neildegras615117.html

"Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life."

10. PRACTICAL ADVICE IN THE EVENT OF ALIEN CONTACT 

A still from Steven Spielberg's E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
Universal Studios
"[I]f an alien lands on your front lawn and extends an appendage as a gesture of greeting, before you get friendly, toss it an eightball. If the appendage explodes, then the alien was probably made of antimatter. If not, then you can proceed to take it to your leader."
—From Death by Black Hole
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40 Fun Facts About Sesame Street
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Now in its 47th season, Sesame Street is one of television's most iconic programs—and it's not just for kids. We're big fans of the Street, and to prove it, here are some of our favorite Sesame facts from previous stories and our Amazing Fact Generator.

Sesame Workshop

1. Oscar the Grouch used to be orange. Jim Henson decided to make him green before season two.

2. How did Oscar explain the color change? He said he went on vacation to the very damp Swamp Mushy Muddy and turned green overnight.

3. During a 2004 episode, Cookie Monster said that before he started eating cookies, his name was Sid.

4. In 1980, C-3PO and R2-D2 visited Sesame Street. They played games, sang songs, and R2-D2 fell in love with a fire hydrant.

5. Mr. Snuffleupagus has a first name—Aloysius

6. Ralph Nader stopped by in 1988 and sang "a consumer advocate is a person in your neighborhood."

7. Caroll Spinney said he based Oscar's voice on a cab driver from the Bronx who brought him to the audition.

8. In 1970, Ernie reached #16 on the Billboard Hot 100 with the timeless hit "Rubber Duckie."

9. One of Count von Count's lady friends is Countess von Backwards, who's also obsessed with counting but likes to do it backwards.

10. Sesame Street made its Afghanistan debut in 2011 with Baghch-e-Simsim (Sesame Garden). Big Bird, Grover and Elmo are involved.

11. According to Muppet Wiki, Oscar the Grouch and Count von Count were minimized on Baghch-e-Simsim "due to cultural taboos against trash and vampirism."

12. Before Giancarlo Esposito was Breaking Bad's super intense Gus Fring, he played Big Bird's camp counselor Mickey in 1982.

13. Thankfully, those episodes are available on YouTube.

14. How big is Big Bird? 8'2". (Pictured with First Lady Pat Nixon.)

15. In 2002, the South African version (Takalani Sesame) added an HIV-positive Muppet named Kami.

16. Six Republicans on the House Commerce Committee wrote a letter to PBS president Pat Mitchell warning that Kami was not appropriate for American children, and reminded Mitchell that their committee controlled PBS' funding.

17. Sesame Street's resident game show host Guy Smiley was using a pseudonym. His real name was Bernie Liederkrantz.

18. Bert and Ernie have been getting questioned about their sexuality for years. Ernie himself, as performed by Steve Whitmere, has weighed in: “All that stuff about me and Bert? It’s not true. We’re both very happy, but we’re not gay,”

19. A few years later, Bert (as performed by Eric Jacobson) answered the same question by saying, “No, no. In fact, sometimes we are not even friends; he can be a pain in the neck.”

20. In the first season, both Superman and Batman appeared in short cartoons produced by Filmation. In one clip, Batman told Bert and Ernie to stop arguing and take turns choosing what’s on TV.

21. In another segment, Superman battled a giant chimp.

22. Telly was originally "Television Monster," a TV-obsessed Muppet whose eyes whirled around as he watched.

23. According to Sesame Workshop, Elmo is the only non-human to testify before Congress.

24. He lobbied for more funding for music education, so that "when Elmo goes to school, there will be the instruments to play."

25. In the early 1990s, soon after Jim Henson’s passing, a rumor circulated that Ernie would be killed off in order to teach children about death, as they'd done with Mr. Hooper.

26. According to Snopes, the rumor may have spread thanks to New Hampshire college student, Michael Tabor, who convinced his graduating class to wear “Save Ernie” beanies and sign a petition to persuade Sesame Workshop to let Ernie live.

27. By the time Tabor was corrected, the newspapers had already picked up the story.

28. Sesame Street’s Executive Producer Carol-Lynn Parente joined Sesame Workshop as a production assistant and has worked her way to the top.

29. Originally, Count von Count was more sinister. He could hypnotize and stun people.

30. According to Sesame Workshop, all Sesame Street's main Muppets have four fingers except Cookie Monster, who has five.

31. The episode with Mr. Hooper's funeral aired on Thanksgiving Day in 1983. That date was chosen because families were more likely to be together at that time, in case kids had questions or needed emotional support.

32. Mr. Hooper’s first name was Harold.

33. Big Bird sang "Bein' Green" at Jim Henson's memorial service.

34. As Chris Higgins put it, the performance was "devastating."

35. Oscar's Israeli counterpart is Moishe Oofnik, whose last name means “grouch” in Hebrew.

36. Nigeria's version of Cookie Monster eats yams. His catchphrase: "ME WANT YAM!"

37. Sesame's Roosevelt Franklin ran a school, where he spoke in scat and taught about Africa. Some parents hated him, so in 1975 he got the boot, only to inspire Gob Bluth’s racist puppet Franklin on Arrested Development 28 years later.

38. Our good friend and contributor Eddie Deezen was the voice of Donnie Dodo in the 1985 classic Follow That Bird.

39. Cookie Monster evolved from The Wheel-Stealer—a snack-pilfering puppet Jim Henson created to promote Wheels, Crowns and Flutes in the 1960s.

40. This puppet later was seen eating a computer in an IBM training film and on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Thanks to Stacy Conradt, Joe Hennes, Drew Toal, and Chris Higgins for their previous Sesame coverage!

An earlier version of this article appeared in 2012.

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