The instantly recognizable logo for biological hazards has an interesting history. It’s also an exquisite bit of graphic design.

So You Think You Know LogosThe biohazard logo, or symbol, is ubiquitous for biological hazards – kinda the point I guess – and is instantly recognizable to mark nasty infectious stuff anywhere on the globe. It’s been on TV screens a lot these days, most notably during the Ebola outbreak of last fall where it was everywhere – especially on news channel chyron graphics used to trumpet the outbreak that never quite broke out. I even used it myself lately in this post (though arguably a little over-the-top, I did tweak it a bit so I wouldn’t be accused of being ahm, over-the-top.) It was actually that exercise that got me thinking this is one of the most recognizable logos on the planet, and yet I knew exactly nothing about it. I’d done a series of “So You Think You Know Logos” before, and yet somehow missed this one. Let’s change that.

First up, the designers. The symbol was created by Charles L. Baldwin of Dow Chemicals and Robert S. Runkle of the National Institutes of Health way back in 1966.

Baldwin had been working with Dow Chemical in developing containment systems for the Cancer Institute at the NIH, where he had noticed there were loads of different warning symbols in use. He figured this variation was actually dangerous – people couldn’t be expected to know the full range of icons and labels – so he set about designing a universal symbol with the help of the Dow packaging design team. The logo wasn’t designed with any symbolism in mind – rather it had to be meaningless – but it needed to be memorable for easy adaption.

User testing the symbol.

The symbol was actually created through an early form of user-testing – crowdsourcing if you will – and was added to a series of sample symbols already being tested by Dow. Says Baldwin of those early days:

“We tested the sample symbols across the country — the marketing department had survey groups to test different labels for Dow products. There were half a dozen of our original symbols in this survey of 24 different symbols. The rest were recognizable, like the peanut man for Planter’s peanuts, the Texaco star, the Shell Oil symbol, the Red Cross and the swastika. They were asked to look at them and then asked to guess at what each one meant. The biohazard symbol got the fewest guesses. Then we went back one week later to the same set of people and the same set of symbols, plus 36 more common ones, and asked them which of these did they remember the best. And they picked out the biohazard symbol.”

After publicizing the symbol in Science journal, it was immediately authorized by the US Center for Disease Control, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the National Institutes of Health as universal and it’s been with us ever since.

The color and configuration of the symbol weren’t arbitrary, but chosen very carefully. It’s not red (or black) but a fiery orange – adapted from Arctic exploration colors as they were the most visible under the most conditions. The design was three-sided so that’s there is no “right way up” – if the symbol were put on a container, that container might end up on it’s side or upside down and it was vital that the symbol still be recognizable. The various angles of the image above illustrate that quite nicely. The symbol is often portrayed on a yellow background, usually in a triangle, but that was never part of the original brief. The only prerequisite was that there be sufficient contrast for the symbol to stand out against the background of whatever it’s sitting on.

Online versions.

Ironically, and despite the universality of the symbol, most of the vector versions of the logo you’ll find online are wrong, to varying degrees. They’re either too fat, too spiky, missing bits or the proportions are out of whack, no doubt the result of multi-generational tracing and vectorizing. I’m a stickler for these things, and when I tried to find one for this post, couldn’t locate anything that matched the specs at all.

There are places where you can buy a vector version of the logo which seem pretty good (though still not perfect.)
biohazard-stock-logoStrangely, these are on stock art sites, have usage licenses attached (probably just because of TOS of the site and blanket application to templates.) Here’s the thing – the biohazard symbol is in the public domain and nobody should really be selling it, nor trying to tie it up (for whatever reason) with a license, even if those licenses are worthless. Anyway, I did what any capable designer would do – made one of my own, using the blueprints from upstairs trying to match the original specs as much as possible. When you deconstruct the logo, by the way, it is then you realize it truly is an exquisite bit of design.
My version may still be off a bit a hair – there was some distortion in the scan of the blueprint that I tried to compensate for – but it won’t be a lot and this version is pretty damn close to the original that was created with ruling pen, Bainbridge board and Indian ink.

Here’s the full size:

Free vector download.

Gotta admit, it kinda irks me that stock sites are trying to sell a symbol that’s in the public domain, so you’re welcome to this free vector version of the biohazard symbol should you ever require it.

Download .PDF here.