The Impact of Applying Symbolism in Graphic Design

Created by Silvia Amadei -

Graphic design is one of the most popular media to make symbols available for everyone. Many people are not aware of how many symbols they see in everyday life. Most of them take symbols literally as a single image with a single meaning. But that's not always the case.

The most well-known symbols are the street signs and those in electronic devices. However, other symbols have become part of a logo from a corporation or even a nation. The coat of arms is a good example of using compound symbols with multiple meanings.

Graphic design in itself is often dealing with symbols in any form. Whether to create a logo or when to make an illustration. Well-known symbols are often the go-to source of inspiration in the graphic design world. 

However, using symbols is more than just a matter of finding the right image with the right meaning. But it's more on how to communicate the meanings through the images. It sure sounds easy, but several images have multiple interpretations. 


What is Symbolism?

Symbolism is the study to translate the symbols into words or how to. Also commonly known as semiotics. In the graphic design world, there is a certain expectation that you would know what they mean individually. 

It's an important part of graphic design because it gives an understanding to people about what the design is about. The symbolism may or may not be visible for everyone to see. Each design is broken down so the public can understand what the image is all about. It suffices to say that it's the study to translate a graphic design into words and vice versa.

In general, the graphic takes precedent before the symbolism. The design has to be appealing while still communicating the right symbolism for everyone to understand. However, there are cases like a coat of arms where symbolism takes the first seat before the graphic.

Created by χάος


Why Does it Matter?

There are many ways to use a symbol. It can be visible for everyone to see, such as in a coat of arms or a country's symbol. Or it can be discreet and part of a larger graphic, such as the all-seeing eye in a banknote. 

When it is visible, a symbol can be easily interpreted, and people won't be guessing what it means. But when the symbol is a part of a larger picture, many people would have to look up for the graphic and what value it represents and how the new image is now seen with the newly known understanding. 

Using symbols has been considered to be an effective communication method. It doesn't need a long and winded paragraph to explain something, but the message will still be clear and could cross over.

Many people do not realize how much understanding a graphic can help them. They take graphic design for granted and think that it's only a case of drawing something. You can use graphic design as an opportunity to educate a lot of people on symbolism and what each graphic represent.

To this day, the swastika symbol is often associated with the Nazis. This is an unfortunate fact because the symbol is originated from the Hindu people to represent the sun when it's facing right or clockwise. It also has other graphic design variations ranged from Celts to Greco-Roman culture, each with its interpretation. 

You can help avoid confusion and wrong association by educating others by having the right symbols represented by the correct graphic placement. This may not be easy, but you know what each symbol means, you can have more creative ideas on your graphic design.

Created by Einav Vaisman


Several Commonly Used Symbols and Their Meanings

Here are a few examples of symbols that are often used and what do they mean. In the graphic design world, these examples are some of the most commonly used symbolism that has rooted from the ancient age and perhaps even as old as the world itself.

1. Animals

There are a lot of Animals are used as a symbol, whether in picture or words. Domesticated animals such as cats and dogs are often used in an animal shelter logo. As for the zoo, most often used larger wild animals such as lions and gorillas to represent them. However, the animal is only used as a regular graphic instead of to represent a specific symbolism.

Anyhow, there are a lot of other animals that are associated with specific symbolism. For example, the raven is often used as a graphic that represents an ill omen or even death. This symbolism has started from Greek mythology, where a crow told Apollo that his lover has been unfaithful. 

However, other symbolism that a raven represent is prophecy and insight from the Vikings legends. And a trickster in some of the indigenous tribes of Native America. Having a multi-faceted interpretation makes the raven one of the popular objects in today's graphic design.

Other popular animals in the graphic design world is a snake or a serpent. This animal embodied various symbolism since it appears in many tales and myths in a lot of forms; one of them is the dragon. A serpent is used as the symbol for medicine, as shown in the rod of Asclepius that you can see in the World Health Organization logo.

Another popular serpent symbolism is in the form of a dragon. In the eastern Asia culture, the graphic for dragon takes form in a large serpent-like figure with four legs and divine power. This mythical animal is associated as the symbol of high power or even imperial court. 

Mythical creatures such as dragons, phoenix, and sphinx are also popular symbolism that represents one thing that is a higher, divine power. Each animal also has different interpretations, such as phoenix to represent rebirth and sphinx to represent cunning and trickery. 

Don't forget that there are animal body parts that are also used as symbolism. For example, the antler is often seen as a crown, thus have the meaning of power. In comparison, wings have the interpretation of freedom or being free. This means that you can design a graphic only using specific body parts and still have the meaning across.

Created by Silvia Amadei


2. Geometric shapes

Many people are not aware that simple geometric shapes also have a hidden meaning. They can be used to symbolize something in a coded message or a logo. Of course, there is more complex geometry that creates a larger symbol.

For a simple geometry symbol, the meaning is often direct and singular. For example, a circle can be taken as symbolism for completion. And in some cultures, it represents infinity or even fertility. However, there is one shape that has multiple interpretations in several cultures. And that is the triangle.

The triangle is perhaps the most used symbol in graphic design. And that is understandable since it has multiple meanings, including its 3D counterpart, the pyramid. Perhaps the pyramid is most well-known, but it still has the triangle as its base and thus shares similar interpretations. It is the basic symbolism for the higher power because it points upward. 

However, there are a lot of unique shapes that also have unique symbolism. Complex geometric shapes such as the mandala are used to represent the life cycle with various other interpretations. But it's rooted in the circle that is the symbolism for completion.

Complex shapes like the Penrose triangle is a popular design and comprise a very appealing graphic. However, it has no particular symbolism except to show a design that cannot exist as a solid object.

Geometric shapes have a close connection with religious symbolism. The pentagram represents divinity, and the crosses in many forms, as well as the Metatron's cube, are just a few examples of religious symbolism in a geometric shape. 

Keep in mind that even when you disregard the original meaning. The design must consider the original interpretation of the symbolism and work well to incorporate it into the graphic. For example, a pyramid may be taken as a path to higher spirituality. But it also means male superiority; hence it can be taken as a misogynist representation if done wrong.

Created by Leonid Zarubin


3. Flowers

Flowers or the flora as symbols are not to be confused with the flower language. Even though they can be used interchangeably, for example, when having a graphic rose as part of the design, many will think that the design theme is a romance-related one.

But there is a lot more to a plant than the flowers that can be incorporated into a design. In general, a plant consists of leaves, branch or stem, and the flower. Therefore, the plant has a lot of symbolism that can be used. 

An olive tree is an example of a versatile plant. Ever since the ancient Greek era, the olive tree is used in many ways to represent a lot of things. The most popular example is the olive branch as the symbolism of peace. You sure have heard of the term extending an olive branch or see a design using an olive branch in an NGO logo.

Another usage for the olive as symbolism is in the fact that three can last for hundreds if not thousands of years. Therefore, the tree itself, and sometimes the fruit, is used as symbolism for longevity and good health. And this is supported by how versatile olive oil is.

While a rose may be the symbol of love or family, or motherhood, the thorn represents something different. It is the symbolism for hidden issues and something to avoid. The same goes for Lily. While the flower is often used as the symbolism for purity, the root represents danger because of its poisonous nature.

Using flora in a graphic design means that you need to be careful of what the plant represents and which part you use. As mentioned above, a different part of the same plant can have an opposite meaning. Therefore, plan your idea and design carefully.

Created by Jan Van Bommel


4. Religion

There are a lot of religious symbols that have been transformed and incorporated into daily life. The most popular ones would be the crescent and cross. The crescent that started as part of the symbols of nature has a new religious representation when being paired with the morning star.

However, in graphic design, you should be aware of the symbols from ancient religions as well. Many of these symbols are incorporated into newer religions while still retaining their basic form. For example, there is the Celtic cross and the Star of David. They are often used in a graphic that is part of a larger design.

In graphic design, a Celtic cross maybe not a popular option, but a Coptic cross may tell a different story. Since it seems like a simple equal sides cross, it is deemed to be more versatile, thus being used a lot more often. However, both are now used as symbolism that affiliates with a specific religion instead of taking the original meaning of a complete life.

There are a lot of graphic design ideas that adopted any of these images and thus corrupted their original meaning. This is usually happening because of the lack of understanding of what a graphic means. Keep in mind that every design must say more than a lot of words can say. But what the symbolism says must be conveyed and communicated perfectly.

Created by Chris Clor


5. Other Nature Object

This category covers a wide array of symbols that you have encounter or even prefer to use in your design. From these symbols, the planetary objects are the most popular ones. There are a lot of graphic interpretations of the sun, star, and moon.

When the Greeks first introduced the graphic of a circle rounded with triangles on the sides. This symbol, called as Vergina Sun, is understood to be the precursor for the many design variations of the sun symbol nowadays. Anyhow, the sun is the symbolism for hope and a new day.

Other popular planetary symbols are the many shapes of the moon. The moon has various shapes depending on the reflected light, and each shape has its interpretation. The crescent often sees as the symbolism for change or a new beginning, while the full moon is the symbolism of fullness and feminine power.

In graphic design, any single line can be a symbol of something, depending on the placement and usage. The same goes for ancient symbols. A lot of these symbols have different meanings when it's thick or thin or a single or double line and where it is.

Created by Chikovnaya


How to utilize symbolism to maximize the impacts

The symbols can have more impacts than what words can say. When people see a red cross, they will immediately think about a hospital. The same goes with having a red triangle on the street. You know that you have to drive carefully. 

As someone who works in the graphic design world, there is a huge expectation on you to utilize the symbols to have the symbolism conveyed as intended. As the name implied, design means to elaborate and communicate an image using the implied meaning.

To have a higher impact, you can start by working with a popular graphic such as the heart and rose to say the phrase "loving family." Remember that you have the graphic design have a restricted creative license to work with a lot of symbols.

Incorporating symbolism in graphic design can guarantee a greater impact when the combination you created makes sense. For example, the animal symbolism for a trickster is a fox. But a Sphinx also has the same meaning. You cannot force the sphinx to have a foxtail or anything resembling a fox just because you want the symbolism of a super trickster.

Another wrong example is using raven wings as the symbolism for ill-nature or badness because the bird is the symbolism for death and ill-omen. The actual meaning of raven wings is personal insight and spiritual journey. The graphic may be nice, but it's pointless when the meaning is all wrong.

In symbolism, color may not play a huge part. However, when you are doing a design for a logo, the color is an important part of the graphic that you can't ignore. This may sound trivial, but you must understand that using the right color can accentuate the graphic that you want.

Created by Gerónimo Gonzales


Can You Make Your Symbol?

The short answer is yes; you can make a symbol. However, do not think that it's a new design that you just recently came up with, and expect everyone to understand what it means. It also can't be a randomly chosen graphic that you believe in having an extra meaning.

There are many ways to create a new symbol. But it is a lot easier to have a compound image with several symbols incorporated. For example, you can work with the symbolism for hope and purity and combine the images for a dove and a lily flower.

The idea is to have to use the basic understanding of symbolism and incorporate with other graphic that you know will work. The design doesn't have to be complicated and carries multiple symbolism. But the design has to be easy to understand and memorize.

Creating a new understanding of a familiar concept is not an easy matter—the same with utilizing symbols in graphic design. There is a lot of symbolism that can be used in a design. However, it also means that there are a lot of interpretations to be streamlined. 

Created by Silvia Amadei



Choosing the right graphic is important, the same with having the right design. However, what more important is to have the design easy to understand both for the client and the general public. And this is where a good understanding of symbolism comes to play.

Symbolism may be tricky to work with. But when you have grasped it, you can see a lot of ideas and imageries fueling your creative mind to survive the graphic design world. Then, you will see that a symbol can say more than a thousand words.

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