In a Year 7 Art class, which was being taken by my Geography teacher because I can only assume that Art wasn't taken seriously by the school, during the very first series of lessons we were asked to look at a logo then reverse the colours and then re-imagine the logo in a new set of colours. In passing my teacher mentioned that the most recognisable symbol in the world was McDonald's golden arches because it was seen in more countries than the Christian cross.
This would have been one of those things which would have remained forever forgotten if it wasn't for an episode of the podcast 99% Invisible which I heard recently. In this episode they were talking about designing a message without language so that in 10,000 years' time once all of us are long since dead, buried and returned to the dust from whence we came, that future people will know to beware of our still toxic nuclear waste¹.
I remembered back to that Year 7 Art class and what I thought about my teacher's assertion that the golden arches are the most recognisable symbol in the world. Now as then, I can instantly think of a more recognisable symbol; its just that I don't know what it's properly called. For want of a better name, I will call it the No Symbol.
It could be that I just have a very very urbocentric¹ view of the world but in the 22 minutes that I've been on the train this morning, I've seen the golden arches zero times, the Christian cross twice and the No Symbol forty-seven times.
No smoking. No bicycles. No touching high voltage equipment. No parking. No oil. No whatever that thing is but it looks like you're going to get your hand mangled by machinery. We're now at fifty-five times.
The history of the No Symbol is perhaps not as obscure as what you might think. From what I can determine, the first speed limit signs started appearing in Paris just before the First World war. For the duration of the war, governments had other things to worry about than mere road regulation but after the war, the world entered a strange sort of period of codifying, consolidating and unifying all sorts of regulations. Those speed limit signs were of the sort that we see practically everywhere around the world, of a number inside a red ring. How do you show that speed limit restrictions have come to an end once you leave the big cities? Simple. You have a sign with a great big slash through them. Problem solved.
Naturally when international organisations started getting together, they adopted what was already working for existing nations.
The Geneva Convention Concerning The Unification Of Road Signals in 1931, was the first proper meeting which looked at the adoption of standardised street signs across countries. The text they adopted was then copied word for word when the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe, thought it useful to adopt the standard for Europe.
2. Unless otherwise specified where the signs in question are described, prohibitory or restrictive signs shall have a white or yellow ground or blue ground for signs prohibiting or restricting standing and parking with a wide red border; the symbols and the inscriptions, if any, shall be black or dark
blue and the oblique bars, if any, shall be red and shall slope downwards from left to right.
- Section C, Vienna Convention on Road Signs and Signals, 8 Nov 1968
Naturally when the International Organization for Standardization adopted ISO 3864-1 in 2004 which looks at Safety colours and safety signs and Design principles for safety signs and safety markings, they refined the existing 1968 UNECE Vienna Convention ruling on the matter rather than reinventing it. ISO 3864-1 looks at far more than just street signs though. As the name implies, it looks at all manner of safety signs and markings.
Street signs are the premier example of needing to communicate a message in a hurry. If you're whizzing past at 60 miles an hour, then you don't really have time to read some treatise outlining the relative benefits of doing or not doing a thing. A street sign needs to yell out its message at large and as unambiguously as possible. I would argue that street signs are the purest form of communication. I find it fitting that the Oxford Dictionary's word of the year for 2015 isn't even a word at all but an emoji. This says to me that even the people at the Oxford Dictionary have realised that language is bigger than words and that meaning and that meaning itself can be carried by things which aren't necessarily a series of glyphs but then again, graphic designers have always known this.
The reason why the No Symbol is so obvious and powerful is that it formalises an already instinctive action. If you want to show disgust or forcefully show that something is wrong, then the natural reaction is to cross it out. If you want to show in a brutal way that someone is your enemy, then you could put a slash through them with the sword. The No Symbol which is in red, symbolically achieves both and it does so in an elegant manner.
Unlike McDonald's golden arches whose intent is to be a bright beacon upon the landscape so that you might be enticed to buy burgers, or the Christian cross which has the intent of reminding people of what someone has done (both of which are illegal to be displayed in some countries), the No Symbol is an indication that an action is either ill advised or illegal. You actually are free to ignore the golden arches or the Christian cross but the consequences of ignoring the No Symbol might be
such that you do not live to regret doing so.
For the record, the utter ubiquity of the No Symbol is shown when I tallied up the number of instances that I saw on my who journey to work:
McDonald's Golden Arches - 9
Christian Crosses - 11
No Symbols - 214
¹If "urbocentric" isn't a real word. It should be.