Recycling Symbol, 1947 (Gary Anderson)

Emmy Rosam
FGD1 The Archive
Published in
4 min readOct 20, 2017

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Reduce, reuse recycle. An infamous mantra used to encourage people to recycle more to better the environment and make a difference. The phrase is associated with the recycle symbol. The symbol is a visual representation of everything recycling represents.

Gary Anderson, born 1927, is the designer of the recycling logo. He is an influential designer and architect. The recycle symbol is not just one of the most recognisable logos in the world but is also Andersons most successful design. The design has become one of the most important pieces of design. It is not just about aesthetics but function.

Anderson enrolled in the USC school of Architecture. He studied from 1966 to 1970. He left with a bachelor of architecture in 1970 and went on to complete a masters in urban design. The symbol was the result of a competition. In 1970s, the container corporation of America started a competition to create a symbol which could be used to represent recycling. The competition also honoured the first Earth day. Many people all over the country entered this competition with their own ideas and designs for the logo, over 500 students to be exact. Anderson’s design ended up being chosen as the winning piece of design.

The symbol was drawn by hand with pin and ink. Anderson has openly stated that he feels his designs were influenced by M.C. Escher’s art, Möbius strip, the wool symbol (in regard to spinning fibres) and the concept of the mandala. While designing the symbol, Anderson tried to incorporate ambiguity; “since the symbol is kind of round, but also kind of angular. It’s flat, but it seems to enclose a space… kind of hexagonal and kind of triangular, and kind of circular… sort of static and sort of dynamic”. We can see this obvious influence in the design. The design looked like paper folding over reach other. An endless cycle, like recycling itself. The symbol is an icon for recycling. The initial design features one arrow on the bottom and two arrows on the top. Once Anderson won the competition, the container corporation rotated the design 180 to look like the design we know today: with one arrow on top and two arrows on the bottom. Today, there are two main versions of the recycle logo. One with green arrows and one all black.

It took a number of years for the recycling symbol to catch on once it was put into effect. Anderson himself stated that he had only seen the symbol a couple times while travelling in Europe, many years after he won the competition. Andersons passion was focused on architecture and urban design so once his design started to become implemented into society instead of pursuing a career in graphic design, he moved away from this and continued his career in urban design and architecture.

The recycle symbol is minimal. It is extremely simple. It is a circle, an infinite flowing circle. Lines flowing through each other repeatedly. The arrows are pointing towards each other and are never ending. This design shows the principle of recycling: reducing the waste and reusing it to be put into something else which will eventually be recycled again, and again, and again. The symbol is something we see every single day. It is on most packaging and recycling bins can be found almost everywhere. Although it took a long time to be implemented into society it has been extremely successful. The symbol has helped to encourage individuals all around the world to recycle. It is so simple that anyone from any country can identify and understand it. The role of a symbol is to signify something. Usually an object representing something. The recycle symbol is successful as it represents recycling as a whole. It has created association. When you see the symbol, you think of recycling. It is placed on packaging and bins, everywhere you go. Whenever you see this symbol you are encouraged to recycle, thus making the symbol a successful piece of design.

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