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The Design Concepts Behind Common Signs

by | Sep 25, 2013 | Articles, Design, Inspiration | 1 comment

Design Concepts Behind Common Signage

There is no such thing as a universal symbol. We rely upon context to inform the meaning of even the most mundane and commonplace designs we see every day. Whether that context is culturally informed, relationally apparent, or defined by an interpretation that was given to us; no sign has intrinsic meaning outside of the systems we use to inform it. That said, however, there are many types of symbols that are nearly universal, and can be understood by all socially literate people. We all know, for example, how to differentiate letterforms from the backgrounds they are imposed upon. Yet many aren’t aware that Japanese texts are read right to left, while western texts are read left to right. So while there are a tremendous amount of factors that determine how we perceive signs and symbols, these are the basics designs concepts that inform the world’s most common and widely recognizable symbols.


Above all else, common signs derive their lucidity from simplicity. The less visual content a symbol contains, the fewer factors that can interfere with its meaning and potentially skew its interpretation. Thus, common signs are made to be recognizable at a distance, they are rendered in the simplest form possible, and they often make use of simple geometric shapes that we all recognize.

Color Speaks

Color is another extremely important aspect of the common signs and symbols we see every day. No matter what part of the world you are in or what language you speak, you recognize red and yellow as signs of warning. Green and blue, on the other hand, denote aid or assistance. In all other cases, black and white are used because of their relative lack of meaning.

Age Independent

Any symbol whose aim is to be universally objective must necessarily be as temporally independent as possible. Our global culture informs the way we interpret signs, but that same culture constantly changes over time. Thus, common signs cannot be based upon information or meaning-making systems that won’t be equally lucid for people of all ages.

Basic Maths

Math is about as close as humans have come to a universal language. So many common signs quite often incorporate basic mathematic principles. Geometric shapes are often employed to make simple figurative symbols, arrows denote direction, and the orientation of symbols in standard XYZ planes helps us determine up from down and left from right.


Basic figures are essential in common signs. As previously noted, we often use geometry to construct them. Think of the common bathroom symbols for example. Rectangles denote legs, circles are used for heads, and a triangle signifies a skirt. By those simple shapes, we can tell ‘Men’ from ‘Women.’ Condensing complex figures into their clearest and most simplified form is no easy task. So designers of common symbols have to find creative ways to render the shapes we most easily recognize into complex symbols with the same level of accessibility.

The science of symbols is one that must take countless factors into consideration. From our physiological reactions to color to the way our minds perceive direction, our physiological structure is just one aspect of good design. But designers must also remain cognizant of the way culture, media, and social interactions define our ways of seeing. We often take for granted the signs and symbols we rely on every day, without ever pausing to give them a second thought. But it is a tough job creating symbols that speak the same message in many languages. So the next time you’re looking for a bathroom or making a U-Turn, take a moment to appreciate the impressive power of common signs.

Richard Martin is a graphic design major, who currently blogs for online cartridge store Printer Inks.

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