It is one of the most inherently frightening symbols in the cautionary graphic lexicon, even more so than the classic memento mori, the skull and crossbones. We all know what it signifies but not exactly what it means—and that was the intent. The ubiquitous biohazard symbol, which loosely draws inspiration from Japanese family crests, was designed in 1966 for Dow Chemical (the same Dow that during the Vietnam War in 1967 was the military’s sole supplier of napalm, a jellied gasoline that clung to human skin on contact and melted off the flesh).
The intent was to brand Dow’s various containment products as toxic. The development of the biohazard symbol was led, in part, by Charles L. Baldwin, an environmental health engineer. As he has written: “We wanted something that was memorable but meaningless, so we could educate people as to what it means.” More than 40 symbols were iterated to satisfy the following criteria:
Striking in form in order to draw immediate attention;
Unique and unambiguous, in order not to be confused with symbols used for other purposes;
Quickly recognizable and easily recalled;
Symmetric, in order to appear identical from all angles of approach;
Acceptable to groups of varying ethnic backgrounds.
Baldwin later recalled to C. Claiborne Ray (one of my former editors) in The New York Times Science section (2002): “The symbol, chosen in 1966 with the help of the Dow Chemical Company marketing department for containment systems made for the National Cancer Institute, was picked precisely because it had no known meaning but was easy to remember.
“A fairly scientific process was used to make sure. First, survey groups were shown 24 recognizable symbols, like the Red Cross and swastika, mixed with half a dozen labels for Dow products. Those surveyed were asked to guess what each symbol meant, and the proposed biohazard symbol drew the fewest guesses.
“A week later, the same people were tested with the original symbols, plus 36 more common ones, and asked which one they remembered best. The biohazard symbol won.”
Baldwin further expanded in another New York Times interview, “The color was blaze orange, one of the colors chosen in Arctic exploration as being the most visible under the most conditions. It was three-sided because if it were on a box containing biohazardous material and the box was moved around, transported, it might wind up in different positions. Another thing—we needed something that was easily stenciled.
”The next major step was presenting it to the scientific community. I did that by writing a paper [with Robert S. Runkle from the National Cancer Institute] in the journal Science. The next was to get the authorization from the various people that would be using it. As soon as it was adopted by the Centers for Disease Control, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the National Institutes of Health, that’s pretty good acceptance. And that was it.
”Naturally, I’m proud of the fact that I was able to come up with something, or direct a program that evolved into this symbol that’s so widely recognized, so helpful. But I ran into a peculiar situation one time a couple years ago when someone was putting on a seminar on biohazards. As gifts for the participants, he devised a beautiful tie with little biohazard symbols all over it. This got me upset, and I sent him kind of a nasty letter saying this symbol was not designed to be used sartorially.”
About Steven Heller
Steven Heller is the co-chair of the SVA MFA Designer /Designer as Author + Entrepreneur program, writes frequently for Wired and Design Observer. He is also the author of over 170 books on design and visual culture. He received the 1999 AIGA Medal and is the 2011 recipient of the Smithsonian National Design Award.View all posts by Steven Heller →