AIGA Symbols

 When you see a bathroom sign or a handicapped  parking  sign, have you ever wondered where the  pictograms on  these came from? Ever wonder how  these symbols that  people can easily recognize  anywhere came to be?  Before we try and tackle the  question of where the  bathroom symbol and the  international symbol of  accessibility came from, let us  first find out where these  commonly used pictograms  first originated.

 The pictograms that we all see being used on signs  today is part of a large group of pictograms called  ISOTYPE. The International System of Typographic  Picture Education has over 4,000 symbols. The  symbols  that are part of this system are used for  warning labels,  instruction manuals, charts, posters  and signs.

 ISOTYPE did not begin as a set of symbols aimed at  international usage. It began as a helping language for  people in Vienna, Austria to easily understand  statistics  about their country through images instead  of numbers.  It was originally called The Vienna Method  of Pictorial  Statistics and this was used to show  people how to  easily remember statistical numbers  with the use of  images.


It became a very popular method for helping people understand a lot of things that museums and governments from other countries asked the creators of this system, Gerd Arntz, Marie Reidemeister and Otto Neurath, to put together charts and graphs that use these symbols. The result of years of work is a visual dictionary that carries thousands of images that were used for many different things.

Another person that can be credited with the use of symbols for relaying messages is Henry Dreyfuss. He worked with AIGA (American Institute of Graphic Arts) and the US Department of Transportation to create pictograms that can be used on different transportation hubs, making it easier for people to understand signs and directions despite language differences. Some of the signs that were developed then (and are still being used now) include men’s and women’s bathroom symbols, the martini glass that symbolizes a bar and directional arrow signs.

These days, before a symbol can be considered an internationally acknowledged and recognized one, it has to be approved and maintained by the International Organization for Standardization, or the ISO. For a symbol to be considered an international one, it has to go through screening committees assigned by the ISO to determine whether it is worthy to be given an international designation. This means that signs that show pictograms considered internationally recognizable, and have the ISO seal of approval, actually carry pictograms that had to be screened, tested and scrutinized by people from around the world.

The international symbol of accessibility (ISA), or that familiar sign in blue and white that depicts a person in a wheelchair, which was designed in 1968 by Susanne Koefoed, is one of the many symbols that the ISO maintains. What is rather controversial about ISO and the symbols that pass its screening process is that these symbols are not free, unlike the AIGA symbols. A licensing fee has to be paid to the ISO in order for manufacturers or organizations to be able to use any of their certified ISO compliant symbols.