Universal Pictorial Picks

Fifty one years ago, ten years before the Department of Transportation symbol signs (dubbed Helvetica Man by the designers Ellen Lupton and J. Abbott Miller) commissioned the AIGA (and they asked Cook and Shanosky Associates Inc.) to design the initial 34 symbols to help manage the crush of pedestrian and passenger visitors for the U.S’s Bicentennial celebrations, the United Nations had a similar idea to develop universal symbols. This prompted the formation of GLYPHS Inc, co-chaired by Rudolf Modley, who had worked on the ISTOTYPE with Otto Neurath and Margaret Mead, the legendary anthropologist at The Museum of Natural History in New York. Industrial designer Michael Lax Associates was responsible for the competition. GLYPHS’s aim was to develop a limited number of universal signs but “not to create an auxiliary world graphic language.” A panel of jurors were asked to select those that had “special merit in reference to communication and/or design.” It is not clear about the outcome or whether any of these symbols were used.

The AIGA versions became the iconic accepted versions.

The AIGA committee responsible for oversight finalized 34 symbols and the DOT initially debuted them in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington D.C., and Williamsburg, VA. The department also urged their adoption and were soon everywhere. Cook and Shanosky worked with the AIGA and the DOT to add 16 additional symbols in 1979 and five more in 1985. They changed one of the three male figures riding in an elevator to a female figure. And they assented to the requests of the nursing mothers, swapping the bottle for Helvetica Baby.

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