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Highway Road Signs: The Power of Symbols and Words

February 24, 2020

Everyone knows the purpose of highway road signs, which are to inform drivers where they are, where they’re going, and how to proceed. But what many people take for granted is the power of these signs to communicate 24/7. But this phenomenon only works when signage is limited to the most important messages.

Symbols vs. Words on Road Signs

Historically, symbols have been around as long as words when it comes to highway road signs. Even before cars, there were paved roads for horse-drawn carriages and foot travelers, accompanied by signs with symbols or words to help them get to their destinations. There were also railroads that inspired signs to help warn people of the dangers of locomotives. The railroad crossing gate, for example, was patented in 1867 and encompassed a crossing gate symbol with a diamond shape and hollow center, words of warning and the gate lifted by cables or chains.

The rise of the automobile in the late nineteenth century through the 1920s marked a period of “wild west” enthusiasm toward a more convenient transportation method. Rules of the road for motorists took decades to develop from the 1920s through the 1950s, as car culture was becoming an important part of everyday life.

With the Interstate Highway Act of 1956 leading to our current coast-to-coast highway system and the advent of suburbs, road signs were needed everywhere. The refinement of traffic laws since the sixties and how signs are presented to drivers have had a profound effect on cities and the roads in between.

Engineers have learned that symbols actually communicate more effectively than words in many cases. That’s why you may have noticed a growing number of signs that rely on images known as pictographs or pictograms. This type of communication, which was actually the earliest form of writing, often conveys more information more quickly than words. Images of stick figures, vehicles and roadways can often be readily understood more easily from a distance than words.

How Words Are Still Powerful

Just because highway road signs base on symbols are increasing, does not in any way diminish the importance of words for signage. Signs that display words are still valuable to drivers, especially those with electronic LED displays manufactured by TraffiCalm. Not only do the words convey important regulatory, warning and guidance messages, the medium that delivers them helps shape the message.

Traditionally, the medium of sign posts has been part of the message, as different colors and sign shapes mean different things that must be consistant with the sign message. These colors and shapes reflect federal regulations, as mandated by the Federal Highway Administration’s Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD).

Stop signs are perhaps the most powerful because they are regulatory signs, meaning they communicate a specific law that affects all drivers and must be obeyed. The red background and the 8-sided octogon shape both let drivers know from far away, even on highways, to prepare to stop. They may not see the word “stop” from a distance, but the sign is still recognizable. Once they actually see the word “stop” it serves as a reinforcement. The proliferation of portable electronic signs using text is powerful because it allows for customized messages in different places, depending on the location and situation.


Look for symbols on road signs to become more widespread in the future. At the same time, don’t expect words to disappear from signs, since words are effective in certain situations. Contact Zumar at our Arizona, California or Washington location to learn more about highway road signs and how they make driving safer.

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