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.


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.