Signs, signs, everywhere signs

in Lee Scott/Voices by

By Lee Scott

At some point in my life the world became a place filled with signs using pictures, not words. All around me are signs guiding me through my day; symbols for restaurants, bars and beauty salons. When I was younger and driving to an airport, I would follow the signs that said “Airport”. Now in its place sits a drawing of a plane and an arrow pointing towards the airport. When did I stop reading the written word for directions and start recognizing symbols instead? At what point did this transformation occur in my life?

This behavioral change actually began when the AIGA, the professional association for design developed the Universal signs along with the Department of Transportation so people could easily understand ways to navigate the country. It was adopted in the USA in 1974 when the first 34 Universal signs were posted. Then in 1979, another 16 Universal signs were added. These symbol signs were developed to provide some uniformity for people in transportation facilities like bus terminals and train stations. Since they are non-copy righted everyone can use them for free.

These fifty symbols have become part of our lives. No matter what town or city we visit, we know that the “H” stands for hospital. The “P” sign guides us to parking lots or garages. And the diagonal line across any symbol has a clear meaning; as in “no smoking” or “no cell phones”.

In airports, we can easily find the baggage claim, the taxi cab stands and the bus stands. Unconsciously we follow the signs without acknowledging this world of symbols. How much easier it is for people who do not know English to travel. But it is also easier for those of us with poor eyesight who are able to see the symbol from a distance when the written word would be more difficult to read.

The internet has now produced so many more symbols as we weave through the web sites. The term Pictogram has become popular to describe these symbols. Facebook, Twitter and Google Chat all have their own unique symbols. Then there are emoticons to express the ups and downs in our moods without using any actual words.

I think it is strange to think that in some ways, we are reverting back to the Stone Age when cavemen were drawing pictures on the cave walls to communicate. Maybe the picture of the Woolly Mammoth roaming near the roaring stream meant “good hunting over there.” Could it be that in some cave deep in southern France we might find a drawing of an animal over flames and discover that it meant that there was a good restaurant nearby?

I am comfortable in this world of picture signs and have found it much easier to navigate in new places. Maybe it is possible that this universal land of Pictograms might help us break down language barriers and communicate just like it did for the cavemen.