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TOPICS: What is a symbol?  |  Types of symbols  |  Space aliens  |   Web resources


Web resources

Symbol encyclopedia online: fantastic!

List of well-known symbols

How to design icons & symbols

How a symbol's meaning can change:
History of the swastika

Or be created:
Nike Swoosh

Or be mocked:
Logo parodies

What is a symbol?

The online Hyperdictionary says that a symbol is:

1. something visible that by association or convention represents something else that is invisible; "the eagle is a symbol of the United States"
2. an arbitrary sign (written or printed) that has acquired a conventional significance

The word symbol comes from the Greek symbolon. Early Greek secret societies would break a clay plate and give a piece to each member of the group. Thus when they got together again the pieces would identify them as members of the group. If a person couldn't attend, he could give his piece to someone else as proof of membership.

Two important aspects of this definition: a symbol is something visible, hence it's a part of visual communication. Secondly, the shape has a particular meaning because a group of people agree to what it means. A piece of broken pottery has no meaning outside of the group.

Think about symbols you recognize, like the Nike swoosh or the McDonald's arches. The shapes themselves could mean anything; you've learned what they mean as part of the large group of consumers who buy the products.

Sometimes the shape is clearly recognizable but we've learned that it represent more than itself, like this one:

eiffel tower, paris

The shape shows the Eiffel Tower. Usually, though, this symbol represents Paris or France, not the tower itself. Another example is the stick figure in a sign that indicates restrooms, as you'll see in the photo of a wall in a  concert hall:

We've learned from experience that this symbol is not supposed to indicate a man, but a men's restroom.

Types of symbols: pictogram

The simplest type is the pictograph or pictogram, which represents a concept or object by illustrating it. The early cave drawings mentioned in Week 9 showed pictograms of animals and people.

Many times symbols are used instead of words because they are quicker and easier to recognize. They can overcome language barriers, like this sign that you'll probably understand even if you don't read Norwegian.

doggy doo sign

Take a minute to enjoy an entire story told with symbols developed in the 1930s and 40s by a company called the Pictograph Corporation. The company created 1000 symbols covering everything from birth to death. These symbols, and many more, can be found in a terrific source book called Handbook of Pictorial Symbols.

Do people understand pictograms?

It depends. The only way to tell for sure is to ask them. The company Get2Testing did just that, and the results may surprise you.

How about this one?  Bus toilet sign What does it mean? Read this explanation.


In other cases, the symbol is an abstract or arbitrary shape that acquires a particular meaning. This means that the symbol may not look like something in realistic terms, but we learn to connect it with the object or idea. There is the ideograph or ideogram, a symbol that represents an idea. Although the ideogram doesn't look like the idea itself, there is often some visual connection that we can recognize, like this:


Since we can't draw love itself, we use a heart as a symbol for it. The visual connection is that love is usually believed to be based in the heart (not the head or the hands). A skull and crossbones means danger or poison. It represents the idea of death by showing the skeletal remains.

Which is it: pictogram or ideogram?

Read this blog entry that explains the difference, then click the link below and decide for yourself.

Here are several symbols that are supposed to be ideograms, not simple pictograms. Do you think they successfully communicate the ideas they represent?

Q: What do you think this symbol represents?   Symbol for fashion


A: "Fashion" section of the Russian edition of Playboy magazine. See more Russian Playboy icons.


And finally, the arbitrary symbol is one that has no obvious visual connection to an object or idea. We have to learn what it represents.

If you're a skier, you have learned that trails are rated for difficulty using circles, squares,   or diamonds of specific colors.

Which is a more dangerous slope, one marked with a diamond or with a square? You'll find out in this explanation of ratings. Understanding these symbols can literally make the difference between life and death. Do you think the choice of shapes and colors is effective?

Here's another example of a symbol whose shape doesn't resemble any object. It's a collection of abstract shapes which have a meaning we've learned to associate with it:

American flag

We think of freedom and liberty when we see the American flag, even though the colors and patterns of the flag don't look like freedom, or anything else.

Flags and what they mean

Go to the We Are Multicolored site to learn about flags, symbols and colors. Then make your own flag!

Superflag graphic from We Are Multicolored site


The power of a flag's symbolism

New & old Iraqi flag

A recent example of how important flags are to a nation's identity is the brief attempt to replace the old Iraqi flag with a new one (shown at right, old flag on the bottom).

The flag's designer, UK-based Rifat al-Chadirchi, called it a: "Simple, straightforward very strong statement... Just three lines and a crescent. Now, the background is white. It is peace, reconciliation and a new era."

The parallel blue lines represent the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers -- and by extension Iraq's Sunni and Shiite Arabs, since the river basin is their heartland

The yellow line represents the Kurds, while the crescent is a symbol of Islam.

Al-Chadirchi said the new flag represents the "ancient, the Islamic, and modernity."

The proposed flag, with its blue stripes and crescent, was criticized by many Iraqis because the colors are similar to that of the Israeli flag and unlike the red, black and green used in flags of other Arabic countries. In July 2005 the new flag was abandoned in favor of the former flag.

Out of this world

Voyager spacecraft record coverOne of the most ambitious attempts at communicating via symbols is this 12-inch golden record carried aboard the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft launched in 1977.

Contained on the record are sounds and images that attempt to convey the diversity of life and culture on the earth. The symbols you see on the record attempt to explain where the record originated (diagram at lower left) and give instructions on how to play it (upper and middle left).

It will take about 40,000 years for the spacecraft to reach other planetary systems that might be home to intelligent life. Will the symbols you see here make any sense to whatever life form eventually sees them? Hard to say, but I'd guess not. Symbols acquire their meaning primarily from the group that uses them, and meanings can change with time even within that group. The goal of developing "universal" symbols is daunting, indeed. What seems so logical and obvious to us may be unrecognizable to a different group of intelligent beings. [ More about the Voyager record ]



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