Designing Fear

Designing Fear


Ask yourself, “What scares me?” Take a little bit of time to really think that through. Now, try to make one of the things that scares you into a single picture in your mind. Still not too difficult, right?

Try to make this image in your mind so scary that no one will ever want to encounter that. That is where it becomes difficult–making an image that is of universal appeal. Universal appeal is a bit deceiving here. It does not mean making everyone happy. Here, in the case of designing scary images, it means that everyone (who is normal) will get the message that this is a force or thing that they do not want to encounter. So, how do we make an image of universal appeal?

This is one problem scientists, engineers, and psychologists of the 20th century had to deal with in designing warning logos. At the time, there were so many different warning logos that no one could distinguish what each one meant. This, understandably, led to problems.

A long time ago, people didn’t have symbols like these to provide general caution:

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Nor did they have symbols like these to warn about potential hazards that could quickly kill you:

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Instead, each organization and company had their own warnings for danger. As you can imagine, when you ship an item and it has a warning symbol you can’t understand, this creates a problem. You won’t know if it has chemicals that you need to wear a mask when handling or if it is radioactive and needs a specific group to monitor and deal with.

Scientists, engineers, and psychologists had to find the best way to design fear for a symbol. In designing fear, there are countless aspects in the process you have to consider. The first one being, will everyone instantly recognize it from any angle? In order to recognize the symbol of fear from any angle it had to be totally symmetric (meaning you can see it the same way even if you tilt your head or are upside down). This is a strange requirement, one may claim. But, there is something in the human mind that makes it more known and recognizable that way (according to some fancy empirical data in psychology, as well as theory).

Another one of the countless aspects to be considered is the longevity of such a symbol. Many symbols meant to portray danger, such as the Jolly Roger (image below), meant fear perhaps a couple hundred of years ago. Now, because of their frequent use in pop culture  (movies, Halloween, etc) they no longer create a sense of fear.

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The Jolly Roger, once a symbol that would make people tremble, has had a longevity of a couple hundred years. But when we are designing fear, we want to make it last forever, because frequent changes in symbol would make them less valuable. So, the symbols had to be unique, not relating to ANYTHING ever made in human history. The Jolly Roger couldn’t stand for too long, because bones come from a human, and you and I are made of bones.

That’s where it becomes really difficult. Making something scary, without it ever having existed. Can you do this? I know I sure cannot. So that’s when psychologists teamed up together and brought up vast amounts of research and data on images that scare people. They found that images depicting lands of barbs and loneliness elicited human fear.


Using this general idea, the teams at Dow Chemical were able to come up with this symbol:

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The spikes and thorns previously mentioned are on the edge of the symbol.


They also created a symbol to indicate radioactivity:

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