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Comments (13) Posted 04.13.06 | PERMALINK | PRINT

Jim Bolek

The International Symbol for Man Tells All



Previously unpublished production still from The Day the Earth Stood Still, 1951

He's been many things: movie stand-in, commercial director and, most prominently, the international symbol for man. Recently, we had an opportunity to meet and chat.

Q: You were created in the mid-1970's, isn't that correct?

A: Well, "created" makes it sound like I had no life prior to that, or that the designers were some sort of Svengali-like people.

Q: So, what was your life like before then?

A: I was roaming the country, trying to find work. It's hard to hitchhike with these. [Holds up hands.] Opposable thumbs? Man, what I would give for those. Anyways, I had some bit parts in movies, usually stand-ins for the stars. I was Gort's stand-in for "The Day The Earth Stood Still". And, I did some of the stunts for Sta-Puft in "Ghostbusters."

Q: Any stories to tell of old Hollywood?

A: Oh, Michael Rennie was a complete gentleman. And Gort was a cutup. I remember one time Hugh Marlowe was leaving the set. He got in his brand new Cadillac and Gort said, "Watch this!" As Mr. Marlowe drove away, Gort used his death ray and disintegrated the car. Mr. Marlowe ends up sitting on the pavement, his hands out like he's holding a steering wheel...precious! Another time, Patricia [Neal] told me she was going to meet the queen of England and that she didn't know what to do. I said, Patricia, kneel." We laughed for weeks. So, like I said, I existed before the DOT [U.S. Department of Transportation] signs.

Q: How did that meeting with the designers come about?

A: Ironically, I was in New York, leaving a men's room and several designers were entering. If I remember right, it was Seymour Chwast, Tommy Geismar and Massimo Vignelli. I held the door for them and it was almost like I saw the light bulb go off over their heads. We had dinner, talked for hours. By the end of the night, it was like we'd known each other forever. You might want to call them for a logo. I hear they do some nice stuff.

Q: You are quite versatile. What other attributes do you bring to your work?

A: Thank you, I appreciate that. I've always been active. It's been a challenge, trying to balance this head on little round feet. But, through perseverance, I did lots of outdoor activities. Originally, they wanted to use me as just some sort of icon, you know — here, identify the men's room. I said that I'm much more than that. I told them that, despite our initial meeting, not much good comes from hanging out at men's rooms. I mean, look at George Michael. So they had me do some other activities like "crosswalk." Later on, I did some work with the National Park Service and then I really got to shine — "bike riding," "archery," "swimming." It's very hard to be expressive when your face has no features. Sometimes people don't even know if I'm facing them or looking the other way.

Q: How do you compensate?

A: It's all body gestures. The crook of an arm. The bend of a knee. It can all say so much. I spent a summer studying under Marcel Marceau.

Q: That must have been very interesting.

A: Well, yeah. But the guy wouldn't shut up. I couldn't get a word in edgewise. I was feeling boxed in so that's when I left for Hollywood.

Q: Is it hard or distracting to be so iconic?

A: My wife, Popsicle Stick Lady, doesn't see me as being "iconic" or even the international symbol for man. One time she said that honor should go to Brad Pitt. My reply? Well, let's just say it became a very quiet dinner at the restaurant.

Q: What else have you been working on?

A: Through my kids I got interested in video games. I actually pitched the idea for Pac Man and Ms. Pac Man. Didn't make much money, but kids still like to hear me go "wocka, wocka, wocka." Jack in the Box and I are actually first cousins. At family reunions, his mom and mine would get together and compare stories about tough labor was because of us. OK, Mom, Aunt Betty...Jeez, we get it. Anyways, I've directed Jack in some commercials. Oh, and those McDonalds "Mac Tonight" TV spots? Those were mine, too.

For many years I was representing SEGD as their mascot but was retired last year. Not my best time, but I make do. It's painful to admit, I was not the nicest guy to be around for a while. Then I realized I needed something to fill up my time, so I tried my hand at knitting. But the needle and yarn — it was all so hard to grasp. Now I just crochet.

I'm in talks with Fox to do a reality show: "Who Wants to be The Next International Symbol for Man." And it looks like I've got some new work. An organization called Hablamos Juntos is using me to develop medical symbols. That's a tough field to crack. I got to be a surgeon, a translator, a social worker. It's just now being introduced to the public, and it was very exciting. I did draw the line at urology. Despite my appearance, I don't do nudity.

I must say, I've had a fulfilling life. I represent man, for gosh sakes. And I think I've helped make the world better appreciate bald men — Jim Gandolfini, you can thank me later.

Oh, and one final thing. Wash your hands after using the bathroom. I'm there. I'm watching. I know.

Jim Bolek is a senior designer for JRC Design, an environmental graphic design firm in Phoenix, Arizona. He recently led a team of designers to develop a standard set of symbols for the health care industry. He also plays banjo and dobro in bluegrass trio The Roof Rats. This interview appeared first in Messages, the newsletter of the Society for Environmental Graphic Design.

Conventional wisdom has long held that the 1974 U.S. Department of Transportation Symbol Signs program was supervised by an AIGA committee consisting of Thomas Geismar, Seymour Chwast, Rudolph de Harak, John Lees and Massimo Vignelli. The symbols, including those for bathrooms, were designed by Roger Cook and Don Shanosky.


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Comments (13)   |   JUMP TO MOST RECENT >>

This made my day.

I live in Iowa City, and some of you may have heard that there were a couple of really nasty tornados last night. Reading this post, amidst all of the chaos today, has been a real treat.


Thank you.
Jordan
04.14.06 at 01:18

IntSym4Man was once spotted on souvenir t-shirts at Universal Studios' Islands of Adventure theme park in Orlando, FL. Contained by round-cornered boxes, he acted out the various ways in which one may "get sick" from riding a roller-coaster. I always found it a demeaning and disturbing role. I'm happy to see he's moved from entertainment to healthcare.
Randy J. Hunt
04.14.06 at 01:25

good stuff. no, great stuff. but, no plug for Mies Hora?

while we're at it, anyone seen Esquire this week? The International Female finally shows us what shes been hiding all these years. She'd had a few Cosmos. cheers, fs
felix sockwell
04.14.06 at 05:23

Sorry if this has been linked here in the past (I'm new), but this story made me think of this short video made entirely from AIGA Symbol signs.
Josh
04.16.06 at 12:20

"Conventional wisdom has long held that the 1974 U.S. Department of Transportation Symbol Sign program was supervised by an AIGA committee consisting of Thomas Geismar, Seymour Chwast, Rudolph de Harak, John Lees and Massimo Vignelli. The symbols, including those for bathrooms, were designed by Roger Cook and Don Shanosky".

That Conventional Wisdom is Partially Correct.

The Department of Transportation Symbol Signs Program was given Birth to by The Federal Design Improvement Program. under the Reagan Administration, 1972.

The Program was the Brain Child of the National Endowment for the Arts in D.C.

The AIGA's Participation in the Federal Design Improvement Program was Lending its Considerable Depth of Design Luminaries, Capability, Knowledge and Expertise as a Governing Body, and Creative Development and Concept Vehicle for Federal Government.

Thus, Legendary Identity Consultancy Cook & Shanosky were selected by a Jury of their Peers.

What Ultimately Destroyed the Federal Design Improvement Program. Then new Secretary of National Aeronautics and Space Administration, NASA, Daniel S. Goldin Retired Danne and Blackburn's 1976 Identity affectionately known as the worm. In favor of James Modarelli's, 1959 Identity, affectionately known as the Meatball. Imagery he favored because he like it as a child. Brazen if not Baffling Rationale to replace a Masterpiece in Brevity and Wit with ...

The Clinton Administration wanted no Hands On involvement with the change of the NASA Identity. President Bill Clinton informed AIGA, Phil Meggs and then President of AIGA Carolyn Hightower the Decision was up to the Daniel S. Goldin Secretary of NASA.

Anyone wishing to learn and read further Analysis and Commentary on International Symbols can visit AIGA Journal and
The Honorable,
Steven D. Heller's Interview with Mies Hore.

http://voice.aiga.org/content.cfm?ContentAlias=%5Fgetfullarticle&aid=1376858

Sending Cook and Shanosky's animated Sign and Symbols to my Good Friend The Legendary Roger Cook.

DM


DesignMaven
04.17.06 at 07:40

hi everyone. im Jed and im new here. im an architecture student and ive been reading the entries and theyre definitely mental supplements. i totally love these kinds of discussions. ill comment more some other time. thanks.

and btw, im really looking forward to meeting new discussion-mates or whatever you may call it. hehe
Jed
04.17.06 at 09:57

DesignMaven -
"The Department of Transportation Symbol Signs Program was given Birth to by The Federal Design Improvement Program. under the Reagan Administration, 1972."

I know it seems like forever since Reaganomics but 1972?

BTW, anyone else besides me hear the voice of HAL in their head while reading ISM's answers?
jeff chiavetta
04.17.06 at 02:35

Grand reading.
Please forgive me if this is rude but to ad a related link I'd like to point you at my little net.art piece from 1997 entitled History of Art For The Airports.
Vuk Cosic
04.17.06 at 06:56

We dont have much art in airports over in the UK!

-andy from nwd
Nurvex Website Design
04.17.06 at 07:16

jeff chiavetta:

Good Catch. The Federal Design Improvement Program was given Birth under the NIXON Administration, 1972.

My mind wondered to the Energy Efficiency Identity Program Developed and Designed in 1981 under the Reagan Administration.

Danne and Blackburn's Identity System was Developed, Designed and Implemented under the Carter Administration 1976.

In 1992, AIGA President Carolyn Hightower and Design Historian Phillip Meggs along with AIGA Members made a Moral Appeal to NASA Secretary Daniel S. Goldin and the incumbent Clinton Administration not to Dispose of Danne and Blackburn's Identity System because it would belie the Governments Disregard of Design as an Integral Organization Process and their commitment to Mediocrity. Albeit the Growing Perception Professional Design is an Expendable Luxury.

DM


DesignMaven
04.18.06 at 01:14

Great article Jim, thank you.

At the risk of appearing like a "shameless" self promoter, I thought the readers may be interested to see some compromising images of "International Symbol for Man" before he became a celebrity.
Link
Jem
04.18.06 at 11:30

Don't forget Otto Neurath's development of ISOTYPE well before the 70s as part of his contribution to Logical Positivism. Ellen Lupton/Abbot Miller have a great article on the development of modern DOT symbology called "Modern Hieroglyphs".
ryan
04.18.06 at 04:21

We dont have much art in airports over in the UK!
YP
04.19.06 at 04:20


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Jim Bolek is a senior designer for JRC Design, an environmental graphic design firm in Phoenix, Arizona. He recently led a team of designers to develop a standard set of symbols for the health care industry. He also plays banjo and dobro in bluegrass trio The Roof Rats. This interview appeared first in Messages, the newsletter of the Society for Environmental Graphic Design.  
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