New Radiation Symbol

by Zeus | 2007-03-10

For those of you who haven't heard, there's a brand new international radiation symbol. The new symbol depicts radiating waves, an arrow, a running person, a skull and crossbones, and a 15% chance that by the time you're done reading this, you'll already be dead.

Presumably we need a supplementary symbol because people don't recognize the old one. Now, I'm a big fan of standards--just check out my website's date format, ISO 8601--but this new standard... well... doesn't exactly set new standards.

New Radiation Symbol
Fig 1. Thousands of years from now, archaeologists will puzzle over this sign's meaning: "Smelly fan blows wind on pirates. Run!"

Featuring "radiating waves, a skull and crossbones and a running person," the symbol (or series of symbols) was designed for the poor, uneducated, and people so stupid they can see a skull and crossbones next to a radiation symbol and still not get it.


Fig 2. Prioritize.

By this logic, I have come up with a new standard: the international stop sign. Taking elements from the eight-sided English language "Stop" sign, the former British "Give Way" triangle inside a circle, and Greek mythology, this sign tells you what to do, with diagrams of a driver noticing the sign, applying the break, various lines, symbols, arrows, and of course, a picture of the Road Runner with a line through it.

I'm still working out the other six symbols involved.

You might wonder how something this convoluted could possibly become a standard. The answer, of course, is simple: Designed by a committee and tested on a total of 1,650 individuals, the end result could only be as muddied as anything that ever survived a Hollywood focus group.

Luckily, this clusterpodge isn't replacing the familiar yellow fan symbol. It's supplementing it, like vitamins!

"It will not be visible under normal use, only if someone attempts to disassemble the device. The symbol will not be located on building access doors, transportation packages or containers."
- International Atomic Energy Agency
Which might explain the confused design. It's almost like they were up late arguing over the precise number of stink lines and said, ah screw it, let's call it a night. Their halfheartedness is apparent in the official literature:
"We canĀ“t teach the world about radiation," said Carolyn Mac Kenzie, an IAEA radiation specialist who helped develop the symbol, "but we can warn people about dangerous sources for the price of sticker."
Warning signs should get the point across, as quickly and clearly as possible. This one throws more symbols at you than an Egyptian hieroglyphics class. The running man, the comical stink lines--it's extraneous. A quick remix gets the point across with half the symbols:

Remixed symbol

Fig 3. Jolly Roger + Radiation Symbol = 'Nuff said.

You don't need human factor experts, graphic artists, and radiation protection experts to design a good logo. You just need a guy with too much time on his hands and a copy of GIMP.

I was on such a roll, I even designed one for Disneyland:

Skull with Mickey Mouse ears

Fig 4. Danger Mouse

I'm still not convinced that there is a need in this world for supplementary radiation symbols.

If the problem was that nobody recognized the old symbol, why is the new one so dependant on it? If this collage of symbols really is better, why hide it out of sight?

If a worker is dumb enough to blunder past bright yellow radiation warning signs and begins to dismantle something, you know, dangerous, what will set this new sign apart from your average DANGER - HIGH VOLTAGE sign? The skull? I don't think so.

Signs are just symbols, and open to interpretation. (That's what I told the arresting officers in the lady's bathroom, and that's what I'm telling you now.) We don't need more complex signs packed with an increasing number of symbols. We need something universal--monsters.

AAAH! Real monsters!

Fig 5. Monsters

I don't care what fifth world country you come from, if something leaps out of the darkness, you respond. Monsters scream danger--get away. In fact, they could scream just that: "DANGER! GET AWAY!"

Keep your arrows, stinklines and running men. My creatures of the dark leave no room for misinterpretation.

Back to the Main Page