There are some things you expect to see on a cardboard box – like the brand name or logo of the business you ordered from. There are some things you might not expect – like an umbrella on the side of your box.
But being unexpected doesn’t make it wrong. The umbrella is one of many common packaging symbols which can communicate simple messages to the person packing, delivering or receiving your boxes.
We love helping businesses understand our industry better. So, we’re breaking down the international packaging symbols. Find out why we use packaging icons and the meaning behind 20+ of the most common symbols.
Why do we use packaging symbols?
Packaging symbols are a simple way to communicate information in any culture and language around the world. The International Standards Organisation (ISO) manage a database of symbols for all kinds of packaging.
Using the symbols is voluntary, but they can be useful in protecting your goods throughout the supply chain. It is common to use more than one symbol to communicate your important messages.
You don’t have to use the ISO packaging symbols either. Some companies choose to write key messages on their packaging – such as ‘fragile’, ‘this way up’ or ‘heavy’.
If you do decide the packaging symbols are right for your boxes, you need to know which ones are best to use.
The most common packaging icons
These packaging icons are so common, that many business owners are already familiar with them. In case you’re new to packaging – here’s what they mean.
This side up
Two arrows pointing upward is the standard symbol for ‘this side up’. It means this box should not be tipped on its side or laid down flat. Storing or moving this box from any other angle could damage the contents.
This symbol is frequently used for technology, machinery and other important equipment.
A simple broken wine glass is the universal symbol for ‘fragile’. It is mostly used on glass products, but not always. Sometimes you find both the image and the word used together.
Handle with care
Hands cupping a box means ‘handle with care’. It is meant to warn couriers that this product is easily broken. It is not recommended to stack these boxes. This symbol is common for technology like smartphones, TVs and laptops.
Recycled or recyclable
Three arrows in a triangle, also known as the Mobius loop, is a universal symbol for recycling. Its primary meaning is that this box is recyclable and was designed to help consumers dispose of packaging easily.
Anther meaning could be that this box was made from recycled materials. In this case, it is common to have a percentage in the middle of the loop which tells you how much recycled material was used.
Box symbols for weather and temperature
Some products are sensitive to certain weather conditions or temperatures. These packaging symbols help you communicate how to deliver or store those boxes.
Please keep dry
An umbrella with or without rain drops is the symbol for ‘please keep dry’. It means this box should be kept out of the rain and away from moisture, since the products inside are not waterproof. It is common to use this symbol for technology and paper products.
Keep out of sun
A box shielded from sunlight is the symbol for ‘keep out of sun’. It means the products inside could be perishable, like food, or flammable like posters, book covers or liquids. Leaving this box in direct sunlight could be dangerous.
Sometimes, boxes have a more specific symbol which is a thermometer showing a high and low temperature. The products inside need to be kept within this temperature range or they might be damaged. It’s a common symbol for pharmaceuticals and food products.
A small fire symbol means the products inside this box are flammable. The box should be kept away from open flames, sparks and hot surfaces. It’s a common symbol for boxes containing chemicals or paper products.
Symbols for safe handling
The primary purpose of packaging symbols is to help with safe handling and delivery. So, it’s no surprise that this category has many symbols to learn.
Two bars with a number on top tells you the maximum stacking height. The number can change, but the two bars always look the same. The number tells you how many boxes it is safe to create a stack out of.
Do not stack
Two boxes with a large X is a symbol for ‘do not stack’. This tells you these boxes are not suitable for stacking – usually because the box is too fragile or the products inside are delicate.
Do not lift
If you see a person holding a box with a little emphasis on their back, it means ‘do not lift’. This symbol tells you the box is too heavy to lift by hand. You should find machinery to help.
Lift with assistance
An image of two people lifting a box means you can lift this by hand, but only with assistance. The box is still heavy so it is recommended to lift it with more than one person.
Heavy boxes have many types of symbols they can use. One common choice is a weight symbol with a kg or lb in the centre. The number inside tells you how much the box weighs and helps the handler decide how to move this package.
Do not open with a knife
A knife with a large or small X symbol means ‘do not open with a blade’. The product inside may be close to the box edges and could be damaged by knife opening. This symbol is common for products like pillows, mattresses and books.
Do not hook
If you see a hook with a large X, that means these boxes are too heavy to be carried on a hook. Ignoring this symbol might mean your boxes split open at the bottom.
Do not drop
It might seem obvious, as no-one wants their boxes dropped, but sometimes this symbol is needed. A box falling with an X means ‘do not drop’. It tells you that the product inside will be damaged should the box take a hard hit.
Do not use forklift
An image of a forklift with an X means this package is not suitable for transport on a forklift.
Transport with a trolley
An image of boxes on a trolley means this box can be moved using a trolley. This symbol is useful for heavy products that should be moved smoothly, such as refrigerators, washing machines and other appliances.
Specialty packaging symbols
There are a handful of specialty symbols that you might not see often, but it’s worth knowing what they mean. Here are three to look out for.
Do not place near magnets
A symbol showing a magnet with a large X means this product is sensitive to magnetic forces. Certain technology and specialist equipment might carry this symbol. Hard drives are a more common product that may use it.
Centre of gravity
A symbol showing a broken circle with a cross on top tells you where the package weight is concentrated. It is often used for long items, such as a golf club which carries most weight in the heavy club side and less in the handle.
The letters FSC underneath a tree is the symbol for FSC certified. Not everyone can use this symbol, you need to be an FSC member and have the certification. But, if you do use it – it means you have committed to sourcing materials from responsibly managed forests and using recycled materials where possible.
Answers to all your packaging questions
Echo Cartons have been trusted cardboard box manufacturers for more than 25 years. We love sharing our industry expertise with customers. You can find all kinds of great packaging advice on the blog. If you have another question, simply contact our team. Or if you’re ready to kickstart a packaging order – you can request a quote.