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What do the different shapes of traffic signs symbolize?




Stop Sign


Yield Sign


Warning Sign


Welcome Sign


Regulatory Sign

Cross Arms

Railroad Crossing Sign

Street Traffic Signs
The MUTCD designates certain shapes for each type of streetsign.

In the early 1930’s, the population was booming and cars were becoming faster and faster. As a result, roads became increasingly unsafe. In response, the U.S. Department of Transportation embarked on a course to increase road safety. After conducting numerous studies, they discovered that drivers notice the shape of the sign well before they can read the sign’s actual message. In other words: the sign’s shape is as important, if not more important that, the sign’s text.

In light of the findings, the DOT set out to standardize standards for all traffic signs, from color and shape, to size and text. That way, drivers can expect the same information and directions from each sign based solely on the shape. These standards were then compiled in the Manual on Uniform and Traffic and Control Devices (MUTCD). In the sign-shape section, the manual specifically designates a shape for every type of road sign (as you can see in the chart to your left).

Surprisingly, choosing the right shape was not an arbitrary matter. What does it matter what shape is chosen anyway? Does it make a difference? Actually, as our brains’ psychology proves, it matters a whole lot. That’s because every shape’s geometrical and symmetrical design means different visual perceptions and therefore different psychological signals to the brain. In fact, this process begins as early as childhood when our brains first began to use shapes to identify and organize visual information.

Standardizing sign shapes vastly reduces the amount of time it takes to comprehend a sign’s message. In doing so, the MUTCD simultaneously improved traffic flow and more importantly, reduced accidents and saved lives. Today, driver education programs and driving manuals continually stress the importance of sign familiarity, particularly what each shape denotes. It is no wonder then that so many permit tests ask questions about traffic signs and their shape. Hence, familiarizing yourself with the signs of the road will make you a safer and more efficient driver—a plus for you and everyone else.


Visual Perception

Psychological Signal


Complex, Mult. Jagged Edges

Authority, Importance


Complex, Jagged

Instability, Importance


Simple, Pointed

Instability, Action


Simple, Complete, Symmetrical

Wholeness, Security, Completion


Simple, Equal Sides, Symmetrical

Honesty, Stability, Simplicity

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