idsgn (a design blog)

The Helvetica man

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September 1 2009


Long before modern icon libraries like Helveticons, designers and sign-makers were forced to use a mishmash of symbols. Until the Helvetica man came along…

By 1974, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) realized the problem of using inconsistent symbols and commissioned the AIGA to produce a standard set for the Interstate Highway System, resulting in Symbol Signs. Sometimes referred to as the ‘Helvetica’ of pictograms (or specifically the Helvetica Man as coined by Ellen Lupton, and interviewed by Designer Observer), the project gave us the most common pictograms we see today.

Prior to this effort, numerous international, national and local organizations had devised symbols to guide passengers and pedestrians through transportation facilities and other sites of international exchange. While effective individual symbols had been designed, there was no system of signs that communicated the required range of complex messages, addressed people of different ages and cultures and were clearly legible at a distance.


The AIGA team (which consisted of Thomas Geismar, Seymour ChwastRudolph de Harak, John Lees, and Massimo Vignelli) worked with designers Roger Cook and Don Shanosky to study the various pictogram systems in use around the world at the time, drawing inspiration from airports, train stations, and the Olympic Games

Symbols in use, Photo (left) by YaniG on Flickr, Photo (right) by massdistraction on Flickr

A set of 34 symbols was published in 1974, receiving one of the first Presidential Design Awards. In 1979, 16 more symbols were added, creating a total of 50. Over the years, the symbols have become a standard in wayfinding, resulting in a set of icons we see and recognize on a daily basis (like the popular restroom and no smoking signs).

The copyright-free symbols, available for download from AIGA’s website, were released in the public domain and can be used by anyone without license.

Related: Airport is a short film by Iain Anderson created using the AIGA pictograms (which made it to the 2005 Sydney Film Festival). The U.S. National Park Service currently uses an expanded set of symbols based on the AIGA pictograms, designed by New York-based graphic and environmental design firm Meeker & Associates.

Filed under: tools

By Skylar Challand