You’ve seen them many times. You know them well. Often you seek them out eagerly. And you recognize them without any difficulty. But good as we human beings are at facial recognition, it’s not their faces that we hunt for, which, after all, have a mean and meaningless mien.
I’m speaking of Mr. and Ms. Helvetica, as they’re sometimes called. And we know them by their outline. They are their outline:
Most commonly displayed as the lares et penates of toilets around the world, they are marvels of economy in design and clear (because stereotyped), useful symbols. (After all, who wants to have to decode the signs on washroom doors? Yet some restaurants feel the need to make us do just that. You know, the seafood places that make you choose the door marked “crayfish” or the door marked “lobster.” A pub I frequent uses the Gaelic labels, fir and bhean, begorra!. But I digress.)
The lovely couple above got their shape pretty much fixed in North America when, in 1974 AIGA, the American Institute of Graphic Arts, released 34 such symbols for use in airports and other transportation hubs. Another 16 were added later, and all 50 are available for download [ZIP], copyright free. So help yourself to as many barbershop, customs, smoking, and escalator signs as you want.
But the Helveticas (from their ubiquity, of course) have ancestors, and some rather lovely ones at that. The modern tribe dates back to the 1930s or thereabouts, and the work of a German socialist artist, Gerd Arntz. Arntz worked with Austrian social scientist, Otto Neurath, giving form to the latter’s data on the economy and society of the time, and presenting it in such as way as to make to comprehensible at a glance by the working person. This collaborative work became a system known as ISOTYPE — International System Of TYpographic Picture Education — and thousands of pictographs were developed.
You can read about Arntz, Neurath, and ISOTYPE on the website presenting the Arntz Archive, where you’ll also find 600 of his marvellous drawings. These appear so simple, so obvious in most respects, that they would seem to be child’s play; but of course such simplicity is of the utmost difficulty, and anyone who doubts it is welcome to try their hand at shaping an iconic form.
Here are just a few, chosen more or less at random, to whet your appetite:
We have tended to think, perhaps, that because of the internet, this is the age of the icon, of graphics instead of words. It’s good to be reminded that at other times and in other places, people were experimenting with the same sorts of symbols that we now regard as ultra-modern children of the web.