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Watch out for falling icicles, Helvetica Man!
July 31, 2009 9:12 AM   Subscribe

Symbolic Gestures. How, exactly, does a simple picture go about telling you, "Be careful here. It's cold, and sometimes ice forms on the roof, and it can fall off, and it can be sharp, and that can hurt you"? Inspired by the upcoming Ken Burns documentary, The National Parks: America's Best Idea, Jesse Smith of The Smart Set examines the pictograph designs that convey important information to park visitors. posted by amyms (35 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite

 
I looked at this for about a minute thinking it was a man having his head cracked open by an exceptionally pointy piece of pizza.

Then I finally realized what it actually is.
posted by drjimmy11 at 9:15 AM on July 31, 2009 [3 favorites]


Great post, amyms!

drjimmy11...I take it you've never been caving? Familiarity with the subject is one of the underlying processes in making the symbols understandable.
posted by Thorzdad at 9:29 AM on July 31, 2009


Related and sometimes hilarious: Flickr's Stick Figures in Peril pool.
posted by Riki tiki at 9:29 AM on July 31, 2009 [1 favorite]


Don't forget Safenow.org's remixes of Homeland Security images. Yeah, they're not really pictographs, but they do show how an "obvious" image can be deliberately reinterpreted. (previously)
posted by maudlin at 9:30 AM on July 31, 2009


National Park Service Map Symbols are free and in the public domain, and downloadable in either PDF or Adobe Illustrator format.

(A few months back I imported the symbols into Inkscape, and enlarged and printed out my favorites to hang up in my infant son's room. Like most infants, he likes high contrast shapes.)
posted by fings at 9:36 AM on July 31, 2009 [2 favorites]


There's an interesting area of research in Computer Science called Diagrammatic Reasoning, which is based off of the same premises. I had the honor to work with one of the founders of the field, Dr. Michael Anderson, during undergrad and some of grad. It's fascinating stuff.

Here is an excellent paper on just what it is, and what and how they're trying to do it.
posted by cloax at 9:39 AM on July 31, 2009


..and now I do see the first article does link to the Harper's Ferry Center, but not right to the Map Symbols page, so I still feel justified in posting my previous comment.
posted by fings at 9:43 AM on July 31, 2009


Danger Helvetica
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 9:43 AM on July 31, 2009


As a child, my sister always thought the handicapped symbol was a pictogram of a man sitting on a toilet because she always saw it in conjunction with bathrooms. She extrapolated this to indicate special parking spots if you needed to hurry to the bathroom, or expedited entrances that got you to the bathroom quicker.
posted by Mcable at 9:51 AM on July 31, 2009 [5 favorites]


Did anyone else follow the Jesse Smith article all the way to the end, where he makes an odd sort of sudden right turn where he warns that looking at pictographs isn't as good as visiting a park, and isn't it [something] that the national park service created a set of images that encourage you to enjoy something? Great stuff.. but those last two paragraphs made me head tilt sideways and my eyes squiggle.
posted by cavalier at 9:56 AM on July 31, 2009 [1 favorite]


How, exactly, does a simple picture go about telling you, "Be careful here. It's cold, and sometimes ice forms on the roof, and it can fall off, and it can be sharp, and that can hurt you"?

Pictographs which can universally be understood by humans is a concept that comes up in science fiction every once in a while. (Dan Simmons, etc.) After all, if people don't speak the same language, how can one communicate a warning against potential danger to them?

That was also the thinking behind why a new international nuclear radiation symbol was released in 2007: "When it was launched the IAEA and ISO acknowledged that the traditional radiation symbol, “has no intuitive meaning and little recognition beyond those educated in its significance.”
posted by zarq at 10:02 AM on July 31, 2009


In a similar vein, I think this interview with the guy who designed the international "Biohazard" symbol is fascinating. It's short and sweet, but with a lot of considerations in the design process that had never occurred to me.

Great post! I love stuff that makes me think about the work and reasoning that's gone into systems that I use so much they become practically invisible.
posted by metaBugs at 10:05 AM on July 31, 2009




metabugs, I'm pretty sure that's not the interview you meant to link to?
posted by zarq at 10:08 AM on July 31, 2009


Ah. :)
posted by zarq at 10:08 AM on July 31, 2009


!!!! Ken Burns does a documentary about National Parks???

*swoons*
posted by honest knave at 10:16 AM on July 31, 2009




I (an American) did a lot of driving in England and Europe this summer, and for the most part the signage is pretty clear. It's especially nice that most of the signs do not rely on words, since who knows what language the driver trying to read it will speak. Once you figure out what a speed limit sign looks like, and that the black and white circle-slash means "hit the gas now, Yank," you're pretty much set.

But I never quite got over this one. It means "no stopping," and is almost always pretty much irrelevant to your normal driving experience. But it looks like "HOLY SHIT YOU'RE GOING THE WRONG WAY!" I had a mini heart attack every time I glimpsed that sign out of the corner of my eye while leaving a roundabout.

May I politely suggest to the EU that that sign is way, way too aggressive for the really pretty unimportant message it conveys?
posted by rusty at 10:31 AM on July 31, 2009 [1 favorite]


... exceptionally pointy piece of pizza. Then I finally realized what it actually is.

Gigantic candy corn.
posted by uncleozzy at 10:36 AM on July 31, 2009 [1 favorite]


Win a car on "Press Your Luck?"
posted by uncleozzy at 10:41 AM on July 31, 2009 [3 favorites]




I've always found this gate warning sign to be particularly gruesome
posted by supermedusa at 12:17 PM on July 31, 2009


Well, that's New York for ya.
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 12:19 PM on July 31, 2009


they have them in california too
posted by supermedusa at 12:39 PM on July 31, 2009


Sorry, for a moment there I thought that was the Empire State Building in the background there. But I guess it could be anywhere.
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 12:54 PM on July 31, 2009


I feel it is obligatory to link to the Flickr pool Stick Figures In Peril here.

mr_crash_davis, that is a very useful sign. To whom should I credit it when I steal it?

Great post, amyms.
posted by sidereal at 1:31 PM on July 31, 2009


A meetup warning sign. Or maybe a meetup ad, I'm not sure.
posted by dhartung at 2:17 PM on July 31, 2009


Semi-relevant hobo signs...?
posted by zoinks at 3:07 PM on July 31, 2009


Too bad they couldn't come up with a good pictograph for don't drink the toilet water.
posted by smackfu at 3:31 PM on July 31, 2009


sidereal, that's a mr_crash_davis original remix, so I hereby grant you a non-exclusive royalty-free license to reproduce it elsewhere.
posted by mr_crash_davis mark II: Jazz Odyssey at 4:09 PM on July 31, 2009


Does this guy count as a helvetica man?
posted by orme at 4:40 PM on July 31, 2009 [1 favorite]


Crash, I shall give due credit to its brilliance wherever possible.
posted by sidereal at 4:40 AM on August 1, 2009


I'd love to know how to make these. I've tried using Inkscape to create my own icons for PowerPoint presentations, but they never looked quite right. There's a vocabulary and a grammar at work there I can't quite grasp.

Loved the use of symbols in the game Portal, and the movie Idiocracy (in the hospital), as well.
posted by Ritchie at 2:07 AM on August 2, 2009


Press button, receive bacon
posted by hypersloth at 2:10 PM on August 2, 2009


Satorial biohazard, heh. I've seen some shirts that would qualify.
posted by LD Feral at 7:15 AM on August 3, 2009


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