sym·bol·ism (n.)
1. The practice of representing things by means of symbols or of attributing symbolic meanings or significance to objects, events, or relationships.

An understanding of symbolism is a critical part of graphic design. Designers use symbols in both obvious and subtle ways to communicate something about the design. Symbolism is a profound, complex subject so in this post I will present an overview of what I consider to be the most important for designers to be aware of in terms of symbolism.

2 symbols meaning stop

2 symbols meaning stop

Symbols exist everywhere and we ‘read’ them without even realizing it. For example, we all know the red octagon symbol for “stop” and respond to it even if the words are not there. If we used the stop symbol and put the words “go” on it instead, the majority would stop anyway and the rest would be confused. Why? because the symbol is more powerful than the words.

Another common symbol for “stop”  is the circle with the line through it. The meaning is slightly different than the octagon but in both symbols the color red is used because in signage red has become symbolic with: stop, warning, danger, error, prohibited — red is the first color the eye perceives and therefore the best choice for these uses.

Symbolism of Color (source adapted)

Color in World Culture
Color means many different things to different people and cultures. Color also represents feelings, people, countries, cultures, and color symbolism. Color can be personal to each individual but as designers, we consider the how color is generally represented in the particular culture we are targeting. In the western world, for example, the color red symbolizes many things: depending on context. In addition to the meanings as listed above, red is frequently used to symbolize anger, aggression or intense passion. Some car insurance companies even charge more for red cars because studies show that the owners of red cars are more aggressive drivers and take more risks.

Color in Motion site

Color in Motion site, a great resource for understanding Color and its Symbolism worldwide

Symbolism of Color: Using Color for Meaning
The color black represents the lack of, emptiness, night, death and even the negative or evil. The color black is used in funerals because a funeral is the mourning of loss or lack of a person and the emptiness one feels after they are gone.

The color white symbolizes purity, life and new beginnings like the break of dawn. This is why you see the color white in weddings and angels are dressed in white gowns.

However, color symbolizes different things in different parts of the world.

Color Symbolism in the Western world:

  • Traffic lights: Red means stop, yellow means caution, and green means go. Yellow signs also warn drivers of upcoming curves, pedestrian crossings, and a animal crossings.
  • Patriotism: Most, if not all countries have a flag. The colors of each flag are usually seen as patriotic. Red, white, and blue symbolizes patriotism in the U.S.A. as well as many other countries
  • Holidays: Red and green are favorite Christmas colors. Colors of Autumn such as orange, brown, yellow and red are associated with Thanksgiving with black and orange associated with Halloween. Pastel colors are used for Easter.
  • Emotions: Blue is seen as conservative. Red is power and aggression. Brighter color such as yellow and orange represent warmth not only with emotions but also with temperature. Cool colors are blue, green, black or any color with a dark shade.
  • Ecology: Green is the major color symbolizing ecology. The new phrase for people or companies who find ways to cut back on electricity, fuel, or things that damage the environment is “going green.”

Color Symbolism in the Eastern World:

  • Marriage: White and pink are favorite just as in the western world.
  • Green: Eternity, family, harmony, health, peace, posterity
  • Happiness: Red
  • Helpful: Gray
  • Wealth: Blue, gold and purple
  • White: Children, helpful people, marriage,
  • mourning, peace, purity, travel
  • Gold: Strength, wealth
  • Evil or sadness- Just like in the western world- black

A logo design for an Obsetrician using Circular Symbolism

Color is only a part of symbolism of course, the other part is shape/form. Some common shapes and their symbolism in western culture are:

  • circle — feminine (womb), encompassing, whole, nurturing
  • square — order, balance, structure, building block
  • vertical shapes — phallic, masculine, upward motion, rocket
  • horizontal shapes — rest, distance, traveling

There are many many more to consider of course. Here are some resources I can recommend to explore the meanngs of different symbols:

Swatikas in different cultures

Swatikas in different cultures

One of the most controversial symbols in modern history is the swastika. The Swastika has been a symbol of peace for millions of Hindus, Buddhists and also Raelians since it is their symbol of infinity in time, their symbol of eternity. But when Hitler adopted the swastika as his symbol for the Nazi party, he changed the meaning worldwide to be associated with hate, atrocities and oppression.

Red ribbon symbolizing support for AIDS

Red ribbon symbolizing support for AIDS

So through the use of a symbol in a design and then promoting it, the meaning of a symbol can be created or changed. That is the power of advertising.

A crossed red ribbon was adopted as the symbol for anyone supporting AIDS research and now is recognized worldwide. The crossed ribbon is a powerful symbol that represents supporting a cause. Other examples are: yellow ribbon for troops in a war, a pink ribbon for breast cancer.

FedEx logo, note the arrow in the white space between the E and X

FedEx logo, note the arrow in the white space between the E and X

Symbolism can also play a subconscious role in design. If you look at the FedEx, logo for example, at first glance it seems very simple, just type in two different colors. But look closer at the white space, or counter-form, between the E and the X. It is an arrow pointing to the right. Since we read from left to right, pointing right signifies moving forward and an arrow is speed. Then add the color symbolism of orange which can mean caution. The underlying message is that FedEx will deliver your packages quickly and carefully.

I welcome any other examples anyone would like to share. There are many.

An awareness of the symbolism associated with what you are designing is not only valuable but necessary. Designing without an understanding of symbolism is like having blindfold on, unaware of how your design may be perceived.

There is hopeful symbolism in the fact that flags do not wave in a vacuum. — Arthur C. Clarke

Each generation wants new symbols, new people, new names. They want to divorce themselves from their predecessors. — Jim Morrison


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