If you’re in a foreign country and you desperately need to go to the bathroom, what do you do? Fortunately (especially if your reading skills are a little rusty), most signs indicating where toilets are located bear the same iconic symbols seen on toilet doors here in the US in addition to the native name for the facilities. These simple silhouettes of a man and a woman are but one of a vast collection of universally recognized symbols that are used all over the world. But where did these symbols come from?
The American Institute of Graphic Arts – more commonly known as AIGA – is credited with being responsible for establishing these (or at the very least cementing the sign designs). Working together with the US Department of Transportation, AIGA planned to produce 50 standard symbol signs to be used in transportation hubs such as airports as well as at events with a potential large international attendance. The first 34 of these were published in 1974, and received a prestigious Presidential Design Award -one of the first – for their ingenuity. In 1979, the remaining 16 symbols were released, thus reaching 50.
The project’s primary aim was to ensure that the signs – and symbols located thereon – were able to convey a variety of potentially complex messages to people of all different ages and cultures in a format that everybody could easily interpret. A committee formed of five leading designers of environmental graphics oversaw the process, providing recommendations and suggesting and implementing adaptations and redesigns where necessary.
Roger Cook and Don Shanosky are credited as the symbols’ definitive designers, but they can hardly be accused of profiting from their work: the symbols are copyright-free and are now available online for even greater ease of use. The Noun Project also supplies a number of additional universal symbols on their site, which are also completely free of charge.
However, is it possible to navigate a foreign country only using these symbols?
In short, you do probably want to at least carry some kind of phrasebook around with you on your travels. While a lot of countries do use these symbols (and indeed the inhabitants of many popular holiday destinations speak English fluently), it never hurts to make an effort. After all, what happens if the signs get sabotaged?