Monday, March 1, 2021

Rajie Cook and Symbol Signs

On Sunday morning we had a small snowstorm and somehow in the midst of that, my newspaper carriers failed to deliver the local papers but instead gifted me the New York Times. After I got over mourning my local news (and realizing I had access to the e-edition without jumping through any hoops), I happily read my ill-gotten paper gain.

The best thing I got from it was the extended obituary of designer Rajie Cook (known as Roger Cook during his design career), who recently died at age 90. I confess I did not know his name until now, but like you I know his work, which he did with his studio partner Don Shanosky. Together they designed the symbols we all know from highway signs (and many other signs) across the U.S. that have been in use since the mid-1970s. 

They were commissioned by the Department of Transportation to improve the symbols in the lead-up to the Bicentennial in 1976, which, as the Times put it, "was expected to draw a lot of foreign visitors who would need help navigating airports, historic sites and other public spaces."

Cook and Shanosky collected symbol systems already in use from around the world before proposing their first set in 1974. They worked with a team of designers from the USDoT and the American Institute of Graphic Arts to refine their proposed icons. 

(Click to enlarge)

The 1974 set included 34 symbols; I've chosen what I think are the most iconic ones. (I've personally redrawn almost all of these 10 before the days when you could find vector graphics of things posted online.)

The drinking fountain symbol (which is from the second set, done in 1979) got this kind of review and comments, according to Cook's notes:

  • Figure: Lower body out of proportion with trunk
  • Is arm necessary?
  • Arm necessary to indicate that figure is not bowing.

Well, duh, of course the arm is needed.

Three other symbols from the 1979 set that I think have become particularly ubiquitous express the following concepts: no dogs (and again, what a nicely idealized dog!), litter disposal, and nursery (or maybe just anything about babies... like changing tables):

Cook and Shanosky's Symbol Signs, as the system is called, have become so natural in our world that we don't realize someone designed them and made them into a unified set. Yes, the design team was working from a range of symbol systems that already existed (there's quite a list on the Wikipedia page linked above), but they were often pretty disparate in terms of content. Figuring out which ideas needed to be expressed, how to express them with as few elements as possible, and all within a coherent visual style... well, that's an accomplishment.

Here's an example of a couple of older no-smoking symbols to make us all appreciate the beauty of the Symbol Signs no-smoking image:

(These symbols are from Henry Dreyfuss's Symbol Sourcebook, 1972.)

I particularly admire the way Cook and Shanosky rendered the smoke coming out of the cigarette in their version, but also the way they use the space inside the circle. The smoke is going up in the most prominent way, as if it's about to escape the circle. And the horizontal arrangement of the cigarette across the 45° angle of the prohibition bar is visually more dynamic than the X pattern created by the older symbol.

Rajie Cook retired in 1999 and spent his later years making sculptural assemblages, sometimes with themes dedicated to peace in Palestine — the homeland of his parents, who immigrated to the U.S. before he was born. His last name, Cook, was an Anglicization of a nickname that was given to his grandfather by Turkish occupiers. His fourth grade teacher later Americanized his first name into Roger, which he stuck with until late life, when he returned to using his birth name.


Here's an Atlas Obscura article on Symbol Sign.

1 comment:

Michael Leddy said...

I’m looking at his No Smoking symbol with a new appreciation now. I have one on the wall by my desk, a gift for quitting.

Pat, you must know Rudolf Modley’s Handbook of Pictorial Symbols, yes?