Found  /  Origin Story

The No Symbol: The History Of The Red Circle-Slash

One of the best-known icons of modern society is a classic example of a symbol—it’s easy to spot, but hard to explain. Who came up with it?

The crossed-out circle reflects a rare success story for the design-by-committee crew

Differences between Europe and the United States abound, but one of the most important? Language. Despite Europe and the U.S. being similar in geographic size, the U.S. mostly uses a single language, while European countries use around 24 official languages and many more spoken, but not considered official.

When road systems were built out, this actually affected the way each handled them. The U.S. built a system that more or less assumed you could read English, with signs covered in English words. Europe, meanwhile, relied on symbols.

This created problems for tourists in particular. As Hal Foust, the automotive editor for the Chicago Tribune, put it starkly in a 1962 op-ed:

The million Americans who visit Europe each year have little difficulty reading the foreign traffic signs. The half million Europeans visiting here are not so fortunate. Americans, notoriously ignorant of languages other than their own, obligate the visitors to read English to be able to drive here.

Foust, see, had taken multiple vacations to Europe not long before writing his op-ed, and he saw the differences first-hand. He was able to drive throughout the continent, no problem. Good luck doing that here if you’re not fluent in English.

What did they do differently that American planners clearly failed to implement? Easy: A consistent system of symbols.

It took the Europeans a while to figure this out, too, but eventually, they did. Case in point: Here is a recreation of a “no parking” road sign in Germany, circa 1929:

A red circle around text that reads "no parking" in German.
A German no-parking sign from 1929, Wikimedia Commons.

And here is an updated version of said sign, circa 1937:

A red circle with a slash going through the letter P.

A German no-parking sign from 1937, Wikimedia Commons.

Hey, that’s the symbol we’re looking for! So, something must have happened in the meantime, right?

Yes, that would be correct, and that something took place in March 1931, when the League of Nations, attempting to manage the sudden explosion in road traffic, convened a Convention Concerning the Unification of Road Signs in Geneva, Switzerland. The meeting worked from a piecemeal selection of informative symbols that created consistency across borders. The modus operandi of the event, from its proceedings:

A system of road signalling should protect the motorist against danger and prevent him from infringing the traffic regulations. Motorists were familiar with the triangle as a danger sign and the circle as an informative sign. It would be advisable, therefore, to adopt these shapes, together with a very simple code of symbols.