The infographic below shows the evolution of German traffic signs from realistic contour drawing to abstract pictograms. The principle is demonstrated using selected signs. The signs introduced in 1992 are those still in use today.
During bicycle trips in remote areas I often see old traffic signs which to me have a nostalgic look. Especially old signs for foot- and bicyclepaths are often still in place:
Comparing signs of the previous generation to those installed today, two main changes can be identified. The signs have been adapted to changing fashion (men wearing hats etc.) and changing technology (forms of trains, cars, motorcycles etc.). There is also a change in style, with the modern signs looking more abstract and geometric. Doing some research on the topic I found that these trends can be traced back still one generation of signs further, back to those signs first introduced in post-war Germany in the years 1953 – 56. The infographic I prepared illustrates this point.
For company logos it is known that they tend to become more abstract over time. It seems that with every overhaul of a logo, there is a tendency to drop nonessential elements. The logo is thus whittled to perfection over time. Modern design language favors stylized geometric logos over realistic ornamental ones, so there is tendency of designers to make changes in this direction. As an example, both the logomark and logotype of the company Pelikan, a German manufacturer of office equipment, shows such a development. The logomark reached an abstract form quite early, in 1937 (picture Source: Pelikan).
Here another example: the logo of the company Royal Dutch Shell (picture source: here).
In the case of German traffic signs another major influence might have been the pictograms developed by Otl Aicher for the summer olympics in Munich in 1972. These stylized human figures had a big impact on subsequent pictograms showing people. This is especially noticeable when comparing the figure shown in the crosswalk sign of 1992 (see above) to those designed by Otl Aicher in 1972 (picture source: desingtagebuch.de).
Though realistic contour drawings are currently seldomly used for functional signs and pictograms they are still in use in other settings. Especially contours of athletes can often be seen, for instance in the Bundesliga logo (German national football league), National Basketball Association (NBA) logo in the USA, and Major League Baseball logo in the USA. The riverway sign/logo below show an assemblance of contours of persons performing different activities.