5 Isotypes that Need to Go

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Everyone’s a Critic

Philosopher and social scientist, Otto Neurath, led the creation of Isotypes (International System of TYpographic Picture Education), hiring German graphic artist, Gerd Arntz to design thousands of images. Neurath worked to standardize the “picture language” so that people of all nationalities would be able to understand important prompts and cautions.

Pictograms grew out of the first initial idea of Isotypes and, in 1974, the U.S. Department of Transportation hired the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) to produce 34 pictograms that would be standard in U.S. transportation areas. Five years later in 1979, 16 more were added for a total of 50. The “person” depicted is still referred to as the “Helvetica Man” because of its universal use in isotypes.

Nearly 40 years later, the symbols haven’t changed. Here are five that I think need updating:


Hotel Information

This seems a little bit more like, “Who do I contact about a strange person sleeping in my bed.” Over the past 40 years, motels have nearly disappeared, replaced by hotels with food, spas and fitness areas. Structures are more likely to be equated with hotels than beds.


Coat Check

In 1974, there were coat checks apparently in U.S. transportation areas. Today, it’s not the case. In fact, the symbol now is a big sign that says, “Do not leave valuables unattended.” Times have changed.


Lost and Found

I guess umbrellas and gloves were the top items lost in 1974. Today, maybe it should be a computer, cell phone or iPod? Perhaps a Helvetica Man could have a question mark over his head while holding an empty briefcase. Maybe not.



Post 9-11, it is now Customs and Border Protection and the agents don’t look like toy soldiers. Missing is a weapon and the German Shepard that can smell illegal items through titanium. This is not to be confused with the Immigration pictogram which has Helvetica Man appearing to read a book.


Car Rental

The key needs some updating as well as the 1974 Oldsmobile. I think just a pictogram of a car will do for car rental, but again, I’m just a critic.

Buzz Poole, a contributor to Print magazine, recently wrote about the Accessible Icon Project advocating for an overhaul of the International Symbol of Access, also known as the International Wheelchair Symbol. “While no one denies that the recognizable symbol


is effective, the Accessible Icon Project team believes that the new design serves as a better representation of individuals with disabilities, namely in how the new design conveys a sense of action and movement.”

Some have suggested it’s a waste of time and money, but Sara Hendren, one of the project’s co-founders, says this: “It’s astounding to me that people will still say, in 2013, that it’s “only an image” — when we know that images profoundly shape our cognition every day, all the time. And no one’s ever called for spending money to dig up old signage and replace them with new ones. We think that icons everywhere are an elemental grammar of wayfinding and also part of how we make meaning in the world.” Read the complete story here.


Have I got you creating isotypes and pictograms in your head? Make sure you check out “Typography for the People” at Print’s MyDesignShop.com. Inside are international examples of hand drawn fonts, business signs, directional signs and more.

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