Symbols are everywhere in modern society, and they’re incredibly useful. Language is great, sure, but not everyone speaks the same one. When you need to communicate really important information — like if you need to let someone know a bottle contains poison — it’s important to use something that everyone can understand.
Humans have used symbols since the days of Egyptian hieroglyphics, but the more modern use of them can be traced back to the Social and Economic Museum of Vienna in 1924. The museum showed a lot of data, so to represent it without overwhelming the visitors they designed pictograms to represent the numbers. This same concept is used today whenever you see a graph that says, for example, “Each stick figure represents 10,000 people.” These pictograms became popular, and started being used for a variety of reasons. To make some of these pictograms “official,” they were tracked by the International System of Typographic Pictograph Education, or “Isotype.” Today, a similar system of official international symbols is dictated by the International Organization for Standardization.
While these international symbols are great for people who are raised around them, it’s incredibly hard to make a symbol everyone understands. In a video, Vox talked about some of the difficulties there are when trying to design warning signs. For some designers, the mark of a good warning sign is that it is meaningless but memorable. People have to be able to recognize it (memorable), and it has to not look like anything that already exists (meaningless). The problem with “meaningless,” however, is that if people were to run into a nuclear waste sign thousands of years in the future, they might not be able to understand what the symbols signify.
To see how some symbols have stood the test of time, we created a quiz so you can guess what a few of them mean. We’re using the original definition for them to show you how symbol meanings change over time, so be careful of a couple trick questions.