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Why danger symbols can’t last forever

How to design fear.

Until humans start showing symptoms, biological hazards are practically impossible to spot. But there are symbols that can prevent that from happening. Like this one:

Since it was first designed in 1966, the biohazard symbol has become one of the most recognizable warning signs on the planet.

As a work of graphic design, that’s incredibly impressive. Most warning icons rely on previously established objects or symbols to make their message understood. A general warning might use an exclamation point, and a fire warning might use an illustration of a flame. But the biohazard symbol took an idea that is much harder to picture — harmful contaminants — and gave it an unforgettable, immediately recognizable identity.

It’s a fascinating case of assigning meaning to a meaningless image. Researchers at Dow Chemical conducted a user testing process with several newly designed symbols to choose an icon that was “memorable, but meaningless” — compelling enough to catch on widely but totally devoid of any preconceived identity.

The true test in coming years will be whether the biohazard symbol (and similar icons, like the nuclear radiation trefoil) retain their cultural meaning over time. The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant — a Department of Energy project on long-term solutions for nuclear waste storage — is now trying to design a warning that can last thousands of years.

Check out the video above to learn more about what it takes to create the perfect warning symbol, and what it means for the future of safety. You can find this video and all of Vox’s videos on YouTube. Subscribe for more.

This is one of a series of videos in partnership with 99% Invisible, an awesome podcast about design. 99% Invisible is a member of Radiotopia.

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