I hope this is the correct place for this type of question.

I was wondering what the symbol on a US DOT W21-1a Worker Ahead road sign is.

My wife thinks it's a flagger with their flag down. I think it's a person digging.

Unfortunately, even though I can find everything else, including the dimensions of the image, I can't locate a description of what the image is supposed to be doing.

This is the image for reference: image of sign

Official source please, if possible.


Here's the US Department of Transportation's official description from the 2009 MUTCD:

W21-1 is shown as a diamond-shaped sign with a symbol of a right-facing person with a shovel digging.

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    @Drazisil I also didn't find it by browsing, but managed to do it through a search engine. – phoog Jul 16 '17 at 17:52

Its a person digging. Its based on the UK roadsign by Margaret Calvert (who inspired roadsigns across the world - see the German or Australian ones for the same).

She is on record as saying she wished she'd made the sign more shovel-like.

She told Frieze: “I now regret that I didn’t put a corner of a spade on the ‘men at work’ sign, it would have stopped all the jokes about a man struggling to put up an umbrella!”

I guess its a salutary lesson about design, if its not 100% clear, its going to be confusing for all of future history!

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    The US version is a slight modification, and doesn't look much like an umbrella. – TRiG Jul 16 '17 at 19:52

From other answers, we have an official source, and seem to agree that the symbol is intended to show a

"... person with a shovel digging."

Now, if it did show that, this question would not exist - we would understand the symbol. It's the job of a graphics designer to get that right.

To me, the most interesting question is
Why does the symbol not show a person with a shovel digging?

Looking at a scaled up image from a distance, I found out most of what went wrong:

The symbol does not depict "digging" - but an earlier version did!
Look at the symbol from bottom right, as if the lower right edge were vertical. The right-most part of the symbol now shows a small mound, just like you see on a construction site when someone is digging. I think the size matches very well.

What apparently went wrong is that the symbol - preexisting or designed for the purpose - was forced into the space available on the diamond-shaped sign, without making it too small.

That's pretty normal - but failed here badly, because the distorted mound image depends heavily on its orientation, which was changed.

I can not find the shovel this way, but I think with the recognizable mound, it is much easier to understand the symbol - maybe even good enough!

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    @Drazisil Answering a comment whether I found the original version of the symbol: Good question - I absolutely expected to easily find one - but did not! Of course, there are lots of very similar symbols - but I did not see any matching except for the distortion. So maybe a graphics designer created the symbol, and someone else forced it into the sign shape... The designer would surely hate that. A lot, And as long the sign is used. – Volker Siegel Jul 16 '17 at 18:09

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