Parker Martin by Parker Martin on November 27, 2012
The idea of developing a universal language through visual ideograms and pictograms has long been
an independent endeavour for various airlines and other organizations related to travel. Arguably, the most famous and well-known example occurred in the early 1970s when the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) and the American Institute for Graphic Arts (AIGA) worked together to compile symbol signage used worldwide in various airports in an effort to create a new set not too far removed from the work of other countries.
As a result, the appointed designers Roger Cook and Don Shanosky created “Symbol Signs”, a set of 50 symbols that has been widely adopted and regarded worldwide as the visual standard. Since their publication in 1974, the DOT system has become so heavily proliferated that its usage has extended beyond North America to Europe and most recently, to include the Kuala Lumpur Airport in Malaysia.
The popularity of “Symbol Signs” could very well be attributed to their quality, however, I would like to argue that the primary reason they’ve moved beyond the United States of America is due to the fact that they were - from the beginning - published copyright-free with no licensing fees whatsoever. While the willingness of the U.S. Department of Transportation to release these for free could be skeptically examined as an example of “American Exceptionalism”, their decision is not unlike the popular Creative Commons system of asset sharing today.
We have to acknowledge that the “Symbol Signs” vocabulary grew outside of the finished 50 pieces as a result of the loose copyright restrictions the DOT placed upon the set. In short, if it weren’t for these loose restrictions in the 70s, we might not have The Noun Project today.
Rest assured, something large is happening at factor[e] and it will involve a large amount of pictographic elements. Lately, we’ve acknowledged a need for new symbols to be created in order to best represent a number of ideas and practices stemming from the realm of professional design. Stay tuned.