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How Bathroom Stick-Figures Became Universal Symbols

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The classic male and female bathroom symbols have been under a lot of scrutiny in recent years, but it doesn’t look like they’re going away any time soon. While the crude stick-figures may not be the most clever, accurate, or progressive examples of bathroom signage, they have earned the distinction of being the most universally understood.

The rise of international pictograms began in Vienna in 1924. The city’s Social and Economic Museum was looking to convey their data in a way that could be easily comprehended by every visitor, so they replaced numbers with pictograms. This new technique, called the Vienna Method of Pictorial Statistics, was so effective that it quickly gained popularity around the world. Government organizations and other museums were commissioning the Vienna institution to create charts and graphs for them. The system was eventually renamed Isotype (International System Of Typographic Picture Education) and a visual dictionary of over 4000 universal symbols was compiled.

One of the most successful applications of global pictorial language was bathroom signs, but the figures we recognize today didn’t become widespread until later in the 20th century. In the mid-1960s, the British Rail became one of the first railways to implement a standard design style for all signs in their trains, stations, and restrooms. This was around the same time that mass tourism and an increasingly globalized economy were making universal signs more important than ever. In the '70s, the U.S. followed Britain’s lead by adopting a comprehensive sign system for their public transportation networks. The American Institute of Graphic Arts was commissioned to develop a set of pictograms that would be used to identify elevators, escalators, babies’ changing rooms, and public lavatories in transit locations around the country. Thirty-four such symbols were created (today we use 50), and they’re still as easily interpreted today as they were 40 years ago.

Accurately representing the entire male and female population with a pair of pictograms is almost impossible, but the standard signs are still clear enough to transcend cultural lines. Drawing men as basic stick-figures and women as stick-figures sporting skirts is a common experience for children throughout Europe, Asia, and the Americas. This may be one reason why the pictures elicit a conditioned response. Even in cultures where most women don’t wear skirts and most men don’t wear pants, the imagery is common enough in some of the larger nations to make it a recognizable symbol around the world.

There are still many countries that use their own bathroom sign systems (much to the frustration of foreign visitors). In Poland, women's lavatories are indicated with a circle while men’s are branded with a triangle. Lithuania bathroom signs use an inverted pyramid for men’s rooms and a standard pyramid for ladies. Perhaps such symbolism is more neutral than what we use in the States, but it’s not very helpful to foreigners facing a bathroom emergency.

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Do 'Close Door' Buttons in Elevators Actually Do Anything?
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When you’re running late for work, one small comfort is finding an empty elevator waiting for you at your office building. You scurry inside, and since no one else is waiting to enter, you jab the 'close door' button. The doors comply, the elevator starts moving, and you breathe a sigh of relief.

This is a familiar scenario for many, but it’s also a big fat lie. That’s because most of the door-close buttons in U.S. elevators don’t actually work. In fact, they’re programmed that way.

But before you get ready to send off a strongly worded email to your office building’s elevator manufacturer, you may want to hear why this is the case. When the Americans With Disabilities Act was first passed in 1990, certain requirements for elevators were outlined, such as the installation of raised buttons, braille signs, and audible signals.

The act ensured that someone with a disability would have enough time to get inside, stipulating that elevator doors must remain fully open for at least three seconds and thereby preventing the button from cutting that time short. Some elevator manufacturers took it one step further by deactivating the button entirely.

Since the life span of an elevator is about 25 years and the Disabilities Act has been around for 28 years, it’s safe to assume that most of the elevators in operation today do not have a functioning 'close door' button, The New York Times reports. Only firefighters are able to close elevator doors manually through the use of a key.

It's important to note that there are exceptions to this rule, though. As the New York Daily News noted, New York City elevators are required by law to have working 'close door' buttons, even though some operate on a long delay (so long, in fact, that it calls the button's usefulness into question).

However, you’re in luck if you’re taking a lift (which, of course, is British for “elevator”). 'Close door' buttons are fully functional in most elevators in the UK, according to The Telegraph. A spokesman for the Lift and Escalator Industry Association told the newspaper that not all elevators have the button, but when they’re present, they do work. Again, the time it takes for the doors to shut after pressing the button varies from lift to lift.

While U.S. elevator manufacturers have a seemingly good reason for disabling the 'close door' button, some may question the point of propagating the myth and installing a button that serves no purpose in the first place. In response, some would argue that placebo buttons serve an important psychological function in society.

"Perceived control is very important," Harvard psychologist Ellen J. Langer told The New York Times. "It diminishes stress and promotes well-being."

That’s right: By believing that you’re in control of your fate—or at least how quickly you can make it up to the sixth floor—you’re better off. It doesn’t end with elevators, either. Buttons placed at city crosswalks are often disabled, and the thermostats in many office buildings are rigged so that the temperature can’t be altered (even if the numbers appear to change).

Some might swear up and down that elevator 'close door' buttons work, but this, too, could be your brain deceiving you. As author David McRaney wrote in an essay: “If you happen to find yourself pressing a nonfunctional close-door button, and later the doors close, you’ll probably never notice because a little spurt of happiness will cascade through your brain once you see what you believe is a response to your action. Your behavior was just reinforced. You will keep pressing the button in the future.”

According to The New Yorker, these buttons are designed to alleviate some of the subconscious anxiety that comes from stepping inside a tiny box that's hoisted up some 20 or 40 or 80 floors by a cable: “Elevator design is rooted in deception—to disguise not only the bare fact of the box hanging by ropes but also the tethering of tenants to a system over which they have no command."

So now you know: Next time you’re running late to work, take comfort in the fact that those few extra seconds you would’ve saved by pressing a functioning 'close door' button aren’t worth all that much in the long run.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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George Barratt-Jones, Vimeo
This Crafty Bicycle Can Knit a Scarf in 5 Minutes
George Barratt-Jones, Vimeo
George Barratt-Jones, Vimeo

Knitting can be a time-consuming, meticulous task, but it doesn’t need to be. At least not if you’re George Barratt-Jones. As The Morning News spotted, the Dutch designer recently created a human-powered automated knitting machine that can make a scarf while you wait for your train to arrive.

The Cyclo-Knitter is essentially a bicycle-powered loom. As you pedal a stationary bike, the spinning front wheel powers a knitting machine placed on top of a wooden tower. The freshly knitted fabric descends from the top of the tower as the machine works, lowering your brand-new scarf.

Cyclo Knitter by George Barratt-Jones from George Barratt-Jones on Vimeo.

“Imagine it’s the midst of winter,” Barratt-Jones, who founded an online skill-sharing platform called Kraftz, writes of the product on Imgur. “You are cold and bored waiting for your train at the station. This pedal powered machine gets you warm by moving, you are making something while you wait, and in the end, you are left with a free scarf!”

Seems like a pretty good use of your commute down-time, right?

If you're a fan of more traditional knitting methods, check out these knitting projects that can put your needles to work, no bicycle required.

[h/t The Morning News]

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