Why danger symbols can’t last forever

You probably know how this symbol is supposed
to make you feel. And this one. This one too, even if you’re not sure exactly
what it means. But what about this? This symbol — The Jolly Roger — was once
one of the most feared symbols in the world. It represented death, pirates, and poison. But today, it’s associated more with treasure, blockbuster
movies, or Halloween than actual danger. We are surrounded by icons that warn us: what
to stay away from, what not to do, what to be afraid of. But how do you design a symbol in a way that
will last across generations and languages? It turns out that is an incredibly hard thing
to do. Back in the early 20th century, there was
an urgent need for a new kind of warning symbol. At the time, there was no universal standard
for communicating the presence of dangerous biological materials. Laboratories at the US Army used an inverted
blue triangle. Those at the Navy used a pink rectangle. The Universal Postal Convention used a white
staff-and-snake on a violet background. There was no consistency in the visual language
used to communicate risk. That was dangerous, and could lead to accidental
infections. So in 1966, a group of engineers and designers
at Dow Chemical set out to create the best possible icon for biohazardous materials. They laid out six design criteria. First, it needed to be visually striking,
so that it would draw immediate attention. That ruled out simple shapes like those from
the Navy and Army. It also had to be unique and unambiguous,
in order not to be confused with symbols used for other purposes. That ruled out the snake-and-staff, which
has multiple versions and has a pretty vague meaning as a general symbol for medicine. On top of that, it had to be quickly recognizable
and easily recalled. Had to be easy to stencil. And rotationally symmetrical, in order to
appear identical from all angles. And lastly, it had to be acceptable to groups
of all backgrounds. So the Dow Chemical team designed an experiment. Charles Baldwin, an environmental health engineer
behind the experiment, said that the team “wanted something that was memorable but
meaningless … so we could educate people as to what it means.” They showed a set of 24 symbols to 300 people
from 25 American cities. There were 6 newly-designed biohazard markers,
and 18 common symbols — things like Mr. Peanut, the Texaco star, the Shell Oil symbol,
the Red Cross, and a swastika. Participants were asked to guess the meaning
of each one, which was used to assign each one a “meaningfulness score.” A week later, the same participants were shown
those original 24 symbols, plus 36 more. They were asked to identify which symbols
they remembered seeing in the previous round of the study. Among the six competing biohazard designs,
this one stood out. It scored the highest in memorability, but
the lowest in meaningfulness. So it was unforgettable, but also a totally
blank slate for designers who wanted to give it meaning. And with that, it became a national standard. It’s easy to overlook how much visual communication
work these symbols are doing. They’re simple — you only need a straightedge
and a compass to recreate them. And unlike most other hazard symbols, they
don’t reference an existing physical object or idea. But they’ve remained iconic for decades,
helping people recognize serious dangers that may remain a threat for thousands of years
to come. And that raises the question: could the meaning
of those symbols stand the test of time? Few people have pondered that question quite
like Gregory Benford. He’s a physicist and science fiction author. In the 1990s, he was invited to work on the
Waste Isolation Pilot Project, or WIPP. The WIPP is a massive storage site for radioactive
waste in the southeastern plains of New Mexico, organized by the US Department of Energy. Benford was brought in to help calculate the
probability that someone or something would intrude on the site for as long as it remains
dangerous — approximately the next 10,000 years. “Well, name anything that has persisted
for 10,000 years. Any institution. There isn’t any. The record is probably something like the
Catholic Church or the core of the Jewish religion, which tells us something about what
really lasts.” The meaning of a symbol can change over time. Like the Jolly Roger, which wouldn’t work
for the radioactive threat at the WIPP. “If you’re approaching the WIPP facility and
you see a skull and crossbones you might think, ‘Hey this is where the pirates buried their
treasure.’” So how do you indicate a long lasting danger
across any language? Since the 1970s, engineers, anthropologists,
physicists, and behavioral scientists have proposed different solutions to that problem. One strategy was to add context to the symbol. By illustrating cause and effect in a three-part
cartoon like this, designers could communicate the idea even if the symbol lost its meaning. But this kind of visual communication still
made a lot of assumptions about the user: that they would read left to right, that they
would understand causality between frames — and, of course, that the drawing itself
would last millennia of wear and tear. So other designers started to focus on creating
a warning without inscribed communication, by altering the shape of the location itself. And that yielded designs like this. Spike fields, forbidding blocks, giant pyramids:
these designs capitalized on natural instincts of fear and discomfort to keep people away. But even then, they weren’t foolproof. Designers couldn’t be sure whether they
would be perceived as terrifying or fascinating. “Conflict between these two urges: you want
people to notice it but you don’t want people to go there. Those are always going to fight each other.” So without symbols, without basic illustrations,
or physical structures, how can you effectively communicate a warning? That’s where the more philosophical design
solutions come in. In 1984, the German Journal of Semiotics published
a series of solutions from various scholars. Linguist Thomas Sebeok proposed creating an
atomic priesthood, where an exclusive political group would use its own rituals and myths
to preserve information about the radioactive areas. And philosophers François Bastide and Paolo
Fabbri proposed to genetically engineer bioluminescent cats that would glow in the presence of radioactivity. By creating songs and traditions about the
danger of glowing cats, the warning could last as long as the oldest relics of civilization
we have: culture. There’s no definitive solution for warning
people far into the future. But designing clear, inclusive symbols will
continue to be a fundamental part of how we keep people safe. We will change, and so will the ways we communicate
visually. Our warning symbols will have to change along
with us.

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100 thoughts on “Why danger symbols can’t last forever

  1. Try putting the spikes in a row facing outwards of the dangerous area. Randomly placed spikes would likely spark interest. And by facing them towards the person its like saying "stay away or i'll hurt you."

  2. Philosophically thinking, this is pointless to worry about. If technology and society progress then we will have much better ways of detecting and dealing with problems like these. Second if civilization collapses, to keep some warning sign of a "danger" that would not be related to whatever event wiped us out – THAT would be a much greater danger and threat. It's interesting to think about, but it's like trying to buy insurance for something you don't know about in the future. Heck we have WAY too much problems to worry and deal with in the present.

  3. why can't you just draw some really disturbing images, like somebody knifing a fetus out of a mother's womb, so manking will keep this as a warning sign till we get out of the process of birthing through biological tie, problem solved

  4. Just dig a sufficient deep hole +500m into the most stable bedrock and place the waste there in secured containers. Backfill the tunnels and do everything possible to forget it exists… If somebody digs a 500m hole and force their way into a container, it is their fault not ours.

  5. if i would find a giant field with spikes and weird structures in the middle of the dessert i would be intrigued to go check it out tho

  6. When I see skull and bones symbol, I think of the TOTTENKOPF.

    GOTT MIT UNS!!!!!!!!4!!

  7. The idea of building a spike field to visually mark dangerous sites is fascinating and would be at home in a video game. Players see this weird landscape and think that it's some supernatural thing, but nope, people designed it to make the viewer uncomfortable!

  8. I stopped watching the instant you suggested that nobody associates a death's head symbol with danger anymore.

    When I see that on a bottle of drain cleaner my first thought is NOT "Captain Jack Sparrow."

  9. Why not just use plain old word??? I mean, we can decode ancient lost languages… it’s better than guessing the meaning of spikes…

  10. The Biohazard, Radioactive and Chemical Weapon symbols are way too cool for people to forget about them.

  11. Make a giant ball of metal with a blurry polished shell. Just put it there.
    It makes people feel discomfort because it gives of nothing

  12. You can do 100s of these danger things. Like 10 drawings of people dying touching the radiation thing, DANGER written in 20 languages, danger signs etc.

  13. 6:03–6:33 jeez I hope no tax payer's money was wasted on those self-indulgent, 2am, high on god knows what ideas.

  14. We will have to see. We are at a point in history unlike any other. Perhaps these symbols will remain as our society changes.

  15. It’s kind of a fact that we are getting smarter and smarter as a species and dumber and dumber as individuals, so any kind of written warning could be taken as an invitation by some random guy.

  16. Spikes towards the inside, spikes towards the outside would equal “we are trying to keep something in, and you out.”

  17. Maybe it's just me, but the narration alternating between 2 different voices was a bit jarring and distracting.

  18. my favorite danger symbol is the one with the circle in the middle, and 3 triangles sticking out of it. i will cry when it dyes.

  19. Make something out of a pyramid or a triangle when designed in a specific aesthetic it could create the most horrific symbol. For reference you can look up for the Pyramid head in silent hills, mysterious yet horrific

  20. LOL Area 51 is the perfect example to show us that danger symbols r becoming increasingly useless against determined millennials 😂

  21. No, but the symbols we have are probably the best solution. Once the sickness is associated with the symbols, people usually figure things out.

  22. The only reason people were using the skull and bones for fun is because it had two meanings. The first being pirates. And because that is the only symbol pirates used


  24. I get the point of this video, the civilization we have now will be different 10,000 years in the future so as the symbols and writings, and maybe our language..

  25. 5:38
    "You want people to notice it but you don't want people to go there. Those are always going to fight each other"

    So how about just having people not notice it? Why not just bury it deep, deep underground in the remotest of locations, seal it up the best you possibly can and essentially hide it forever?
    I'm imagining a large dugout room hundreds of metres underground where you can dispose of all the nuclear waste you need to, surround the room with walls metres thick made of steel and concrete, seal up and destroy any entrance and let nature grow back over it so that nobody ever knew it was there.

  26. came back to this after listening to SYSK's episode on nuclear semiotics. i highly recommend it! it goes into detail about all of the things mentioned in this video.

  27. Honestly, if you think that a skull and bones means treasure… Go ahead. Touch whatever it is behind the symbol and let natural selection work.

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