One of the most dynamic tools graphic designers use to visually communicate complex concepts is through the use of symbols (not cymbals). A symbol is an object that represents, stands for, or suggests an idea, visual image, belief, action, or material entity. Symbols take the form of words, sounds, gestures, or visual images and are used to convey ideas and beliefs. For example, a red octagon may be a symbol for “STOP”. On a map, a picture of a tent might represent a campsite. Numerals are symbols for numbers. Personal names are symbols representing individuals. A red rose symbolizes love and compassion. Joseph Campbell proposes the following definition: A symbol is an energy evoking, and directing, agent.

A symbol, for us in the design world, is usually a combination of graphic elements that represent something to us—in other words, a picture that tells a story. Kenneth Burke, the twentieth century theorist and critic, described humans as “symbol-using, symbol making, and symbol misusing animal”.

Symbols are a means of complex communication that often can have multiple levels of meaning. This separates symbols from signs, as signs have only one meaning. Human cultures use symbols to express specific ideologies and social structures and to represent aspects of their specific culture. Thus, symbols carry meanings that depend upon one’s cultural background; in other words, the meaning of a symbol is not inherent in the symbol itself but is culturally learned.—Mari Womack.

Symbols are the basis of all human understanding and serve as vehicles of conception for all human knowledge.—Susanne K. Langer.

Symbols facilitate understanding of the world in which we live, thus serving as the grounds upon which we make judgments.—Catherine Palczewski, Richard Ice, and John Fritch.

Semiotics is the study of signs, symbols, and signification as communicative behavior. Semiotics studies focus on the relationship of the signifier and the signified, also taking into account interpretation of visual cues, body language, sound, and other contextual clues. Semiotics is linked with both linguistics and psychology. Semioticians thus not only study what a symbol implies, but also how it got its meaning and how it functions to make meaning in society. Symbols allow the human brain continuously to create meaning using sensory input and decode symbols through both denotation and connotation.

A symbol’s meaning may be modified by various factors including;

  1. Popular Usage—Peace sign in the late 1960’s
  2. History—The history of a symbol is one of many factors in determining a particular symbol’s apparent meaning. (swastika)
  3. Context—The context of a symbol may change its meaning. Similar five-pointed stars might signify a law enforcement officer or a member of the armed services, depending upon the uniform.

Some Examples:


  • Morse Code
  • Navajo code breakers WWII
  • binary code
  • musical notation
  • formulas
  • recipes

  • Ancient languages
  • Sanscrit
  • Masonic
  • Runes
  • Rosetta Stone
  • Hieroglyphics sacred carving, God’s words
  • American Sign Language
  • Semiphore
  • Medieval Heraldry
  • shorthand/stenography
  • pictures for sounds or syllables
  • navagational systems

  • Symbol Objects
  • Signal Flags on ships
  • Military Badges or Rank
  • Playing Card suits
  • Electronic circuit boards
  • Rebus
  • star charts
  • maps
  • directions
  • diagrams
  • charts
  • rules and regulations
  • radar/ sonar
  • spectrum
  • blueprints
  • construction techniques
  • engineering
  • architecture


Great logos based on symbolic communication. When designing a company logo one of the main things is to define the identity, i.e. to represent clearly who the company is and how it would like to be perceived. A masterfully executed logo materializes the identity for the user and all those who interact with the logo. Now, as designers, we have to recognize and respect what gives logos this power to define-our goal being to create high quality and effective logos for our clients.

symbols in logo design

Designers should learn how to use symbols correctly, and to avoid misrepresentation! The last thing, we want to do is use a symbol incorrectly and as a result make a client look bad. (The axe is a symbol that comes to mind in this unfortunate scenario.)


So is today is bad luck because
its the 13th?

In the days of old, people gave
great importance to numerology
and a slew of other mystical

A lot of that stuff, such as
astrology, if it has any
truth to it, works because
all that stuff was held in
the mind of
the collective consciousness.

As far as symbolic meaning goes,
what is contained in the
contemporary collective consciousness?
(no 13th floors in most high-rise buildings, a baker’s dozen)

What is separately contained in the
mind of the individual?
(my friend’s birthday is on the 13th)

Impact Of Symbols Within Logos

In a world where people and companies are more readily recognized for what they represent than for who they are, symbols have become more and more important, and the use of them increasingly complex.

Some might argue that a logo is in fact a symbol, but it is not that simple. A logo becomes the symbol for the company’s identity, and at the same time, uses pre-existing symbols to do its job.

If done right, symbols can be used to exploit the most unconscious-level of human desire, thus when incorporated into the logo design, symbols gracefully create associations between a company and that which the company would like to represent.

How Symbols Influence Branding

Branding is important for current social life, for business, for collective identities and for the modern day human experience. It allows people to identify, organize, classify, embody and make sense of the world.

From a psychoanalytical perspective, creating brands is linked to understanding how humans communicate and express feelings through symbols. It can be thought of as manipulation, but really, it is a matter of understanding the very basics of human communication and how our minds work to create within us a sense of satisfaction.

Brands must be competitive. The symbols being used to represent the brand must be strong. The associations people make via the symbols is crucial in how they eventually classify their brands and thus, chose to interact or not interact with the brands out there.

Tips On Using Symbols In Logos And Brands

1. Storytelling

Remember, not all symbols are created equal-choose symbols that tell a story. Do your research and make sure the symbols incorporated in your logo are not just pretty faces, but convey clear and concise representations.

2. International Perspectives:

Examine symbols from multiple perspectives-that of the clients, that of their target audience, and even beyond their normal social and cultural contexts. What a symbol represents in one culture may not be what it represents in another. This is crucial for companies who seek to create international identities and brands.

3. Conflicts Of Interest:

Again, do your research. Do not use multiple symbols in one logo or brand that might possibly represent conflicting ideas. It is ok to combine forces, but be careful to not overload on symbols, or couple symbols that cause friction. You want the logo to express a unified message.

4. Clarify The Communication

Each logo should communicate something. That something is left up to the client to determine and the designer to execute. Symbols are powerful communication devices when used wisely. One smart symbolic element in a logo design can express everything, but the designer needs to be careful to express one thing well, not many ideas poorly.

As with any device, there are limits to what these graphical tools can do, therefore, keep it concise. The client may resist being overly specific in their message, but as the designer it is your job to stress the need for symbolic impact.

5. Symbols That Interact:

Everything that visually represents the company comes to define it. This is the general idea behind the brand and its logo. The hope is that people understand who the company is and want to incorporate the brand into their lives. The designer must be conscience that symbols do not exist on their own, since conception they have been in a constant state of interaction. Therefore, symbols have friends and they have enemies. The designer must learn to recognize how this will affect the overall impact of the brand and logo.

Excellent Use Of Symbols In Logo

Here we showcase some samples of companies out there that make excellent use of symbols in their logo.

E T.V. – Exclamation Point: exciting, stand-out, important.

etv logo

Batman – the Bat: Mysterious, nightlife, darkness, sensory.

batman logo

Nike – the swoosh: movement, approval, speed, accurateness.

nike logo

Playboy – the bunny rabbit: playful, innocent, cute + bowtie: formal, gentlemanly, classic.

playboy logo

Target – the Bull’s-eye: Right on the Mark, Precise, Winner.

target logo

Girl Scouts – the Clover: good fortune, youth, holy trinity. The three female profiles: womanhood, holy trinity, equality.

girl scout logo

McDonald’s – Golden Arches: passage way, welcoming, good fortune.

mcdonalds logo

Windows – Window: openness, connectivity, transparency + Flag: victory, loyalty, beacon.

windows logo

Apollo – Four Wheels: transportation, unity, dependability.

apollo logo


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