The International Radiation Symbol, 1946

Exhibit / December 8, 2016

Object Name: The International Radiation Symbol
Maker and Year: Berkeley Radiation Laboratory, 1946
Object Type: Warning symbol
Description: (Richard McKenna)

The International Radiation Symbol or Ionizing Radiation Trefoil Warning Symbol was created at the University of California Berkeley Radiation Laboratory in 1946. Designed informally and originally intended  for lab use only, the  symbol was—according to Nels Garden, head of the laboratory’s Health Chemistry Group—“supposed to represent activity radiating from an atom,” and originally consisted of a magenta trefoil set against a blue background.

Among the reasons magenta was selected was its high cost, which it was presumed would prevent the sign from being displayed promiscuously, thus reducing its impact. The blue—chosen with the aim of ensuring visibility, there being little blue used in areas where the sign would be displayed—was replaced with yellow because of worries that it would fade or allow the sign to go unnoticed. Although magenta and yellow remain the color scheme codified by the American National Standards Institute for use in the United States, the trefoil in the international version is black.

The symbol proved to be extraordinarily effective and soon became an immediately recognizable avatar for the many ills—physical, psychological, political—and fears of the nuclear age.

5 thoughts on “The International Radiation Symbol, 1946

  1. The art form known as isotype, created by Otto and Marie Neurath in Austria and also thousands of designs created by Gerd Arntz, one of my personal favourites that helped UofC Berkley lead to this creation I’m sure as the isotype (picture language) became a global success through those artists. There’s a museum in The Hague, Netherlands dedicated to Arntz that should be well explored if given the opportunity to go over there. Cheers

    • I’m aware of the Neuraths and Arntz from my days back in graphic design – beautiful stuff, I’d love to have a poke about the museum.

      • Very awesome you know of their work! Hazah! So many people don’t but that’s awesome you are aware of them! I fell in love with Arntz’s work I got four pieces tattooed on me because it’s so interpretive! Yeah I’d lose it to go to the museum in the Hague for sure!

  2. Pingback: EXERCISE: SIGNS & SYMBOLS – Lex Learning Log

  3. Pingback: The Uncoziest Catastrophe: Raymond Briggs’ ‘When the Wind Blows’, 1982

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