Have you ever walked up to a door and not known whether to push or pull? A better question might be: how many times per day do you experience this. It’s a problem of poor design that is sadly, ubiquitous in our world.

Renowned author Donald Norman is famous for his critique of door design—so much so that a bad door is commonly referred to as a “Norman door.” The following is an excerpt from Norman’s website. “Over the years, readers of my books have frequently sent me photographs of amusing examples of poor design. Well, this morning, Alexander Oberdörster sent me a lovely example of buggy doors at the Institute of Applied Sciences, part of the Albert Ludwig University in Freiburg, Germany. Doors where someone (the architect?) had turned the poorly designed handles into a feature by making them into works of art. These are glass doors that only open in one direction. But as is typical of unthinking builders and architects, the identical looking “pull” handles were installed on both sides of the door: see the photo. Mr. Oberdörster described the doors like this: As you can see, it’s not clear whether to push or pull the door to get inside. Nothing new so far; and of course, the door has its manual written on it (even in multiple languages!), but with a twist this time: The words are etched into the glass from opposing sides, so you can read both “ziehen” (pull) and “drücken” (push) from either side. Really confusing. Amazing, rather than construct the doors properly with different kinds of handles on each side of the door, they have used the confusion as an excuse to create art, where the art is almost as confusing as the original.”

A door will often explicitly spell out, “Push” or “Pull” but that isn’t very useful if you don’t understand that particular language, have reading difficulties, or are in a hurry. A good image is always more noticeable and more quickly understood than words. This type of pictorial symbol is commonly referred to as a “pictogram.”

Today many different cultures share equal or similar codified systems of pictograms, which can be thought of as the highly recognizable icons that form the world’s visual language. Pictographs serve as pictorial, representational signs, instructions, or statistical diagrams. Because of their graphical nature and fairly realistic style, they are widely used to indicate public toilets, or places such as airports and train stations. Another common set of pictographs are the laundry symbols used on clothing tags and chemical hazard labels. The Noun Project is a free, public dictionary of these internationally recognized pictograms.

Despite today's comprehensive compilation of pictograms, a very important one remains missing—one that expresses the “push-pull” function. Out of this void arose the International Push-Pull Pictogram Design Challenge. The goal was to offer the world a new pictogram that successfully symbolizes “push-pull”. And who better to solve the problem than a designer. Thus, we invited submissions from the international design community, asking for a voluntary contribution of ideas, sketches or formal proposals. After extensive testing across ethnicities, a winning design was chosen. The following pages present the design submissions received as well as the winner.