Universal symbols

Are there any truely universal symbols that would be recognized by any human?

What’s the medium of this symbol ?

A painting ? Then, maybe the sun/moon.

Well I don’t know of any surveys, but I would strongly susspect everyone who has vision would recognise a crescent moon shape as representation of the Moon.

:smiley: Snap!

How’s this for universal:

           / \            
           | |            
           | |            
           | |_            
         /\| | \/\      
         \ ` |_| /        
         ,---:_/ |        
        (  =._)  |        
         \ `    /         
          |    |          


Most people would probably recognize the other side more quickly.

The waxing moon came second in the only survey of symbol recognition that I recall reading - and it was probably due to it’s symbolism to the Islamic religion.

The list as I recall of most recognised symbols was:

  1. The Crucifix
  2. The Cresent Moon
  3. Coca-Cola Swirl (depressing isn’t it)
  4. The Shell Oil Pectan shell

This was a few years ago and I would not be surprised if the Nike tick isn’t up there somewhere. The survey might have started from a narrower definition as I would have thought human hand prints and such like would figure highly…

a crescent moon shape as representation of the Moon

Probably, but bear in mind that due to latitude, cultures differ in the orientation (“crescent” or “boat”) that’s most familiar.


Good call, moriah. Many studies have been done that show facial expressions are almost universally recognized. Apparently the are ingrained and not learned, for the most part.

How do they depict symbolically whether it’s waxing or waning?

How 'bout this?

“A recent study indicated that with the exception of Santa Claus, the Shell pecten is the most recognized symbol in the world.”

Not surprisingly, you can find that claim here:


“McDonald’s has restaurants in 120 countries, and the golden arches as a symbol are now more widely recognized than the Christian cross.”

One of many sites making this assertion is


That’s actually a big problem for some people, as the answer seems to be “not really”, especially when it comes to complicated information. Imagine you just finished burying a bunch of radioactive waste, sealed it all up, and want to leave a sign suggesting that people change their travel plans 180 degrees. Remember that this sign must last for 10,000 years without the meaning changing; that’s tough.

I downloaded a document years ago entitled “Expert Judgement on Markers to Deter Inadvertent Human Intrusion into the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant” (Sandia Report Sand92-1382 UC-721 1993) (so many words; you know they mean it!). It deals just with this type of thing; sending complicated messages to people who might have an entirely different history than you do. (Most of the ideas manage to convey a sense of a forbidden area, even without additional words)

If you’re interested, similar stuff is available here:

Well, Nanoda, I was going to say, what’s wrong with a picture of a bunch of dead people, but that spike field design is pretty sweet. :slight_smile:

That’s my favourite one too. :slight_smile:
OTOH, if all you’re worried about is recognizability, this page from the Brunching Shuttlecocks (and the page after), has some frank reviews of some common symbols.

Looking at them, I can safely say that the biohazard one is the coolest one, but if it’s understanding you’re after, I have to vote for the “don’t tilt the pop machine” one. Unless you’re a recently arrived jungle pygmy (who might think the machine attacks people), you’ve gotta see that it’s gonna squish you.

The problem with warning people about toxic waste is that even if they understand the message, what will they do? Think about what WE’D do if we found some ancient symbols implying horrible doom: “Oh how cute, people from 10,000 years ago warned us not to dig here. Go get some shovels.” :smiley:

The key is to make it one big pain-in-the-ass to get close, more people have been stopped by mud than walls. Remember Oak island? If someone were willing to dig up and drain the whole island they might find something of value but it would never be worth it. It doesn’t have to keep them away forever, just untill they have the scientific knowledge to know why they should stay away.

These toxic waste warnings make me fear for future generations. Evidently the panel responsible seems to think that the society of 10,000 years hence will consist solely of severely intellectual art critics. * “Ah, you see how the spikes seem to thrust, conveying a sense of imminent bodily harm. Obviously the subtext is of a warning away, a strange and foreboding Weltanschaung…”*

I have to second Sock Munkey’s suggestion to the toxic waste disposal people: Stop dicking around trying to communicate with the fricking Eloi, and just bury the stuff deeper. This will have two advantages:

  1. Any culture with sufficient resources and technology to mount a sustained excavation will more likely be able to translate any warnings we do decide to leave.

  2. The radioactive stuff will be buried deeper.

Getting back on topic, I learn from Roger E. Axtell’s book, “Gestures,” that, indeed, flipping the bird is just about the most cross-culturally identifiable hand signal that you can make. Although interestingly, in Arabic countries you apparently have to keep your fingers spread and point the middle one at the ground to get your point across. This is a pretty neat reference book for traveling abroad: learn how not to hitchhike in Nigeria!

Oh yah, Axtell also cites the smile as the absolutely universal gesture. Presumably he doesn’t mean the Jack Nicholson variety.

True but all you have to do is have the crescent match what the moon looks like over the site where the symbol is shown since anyone who goes there would see the moon that way as well once they got there.