Symbolism (also called semiotics) is a powerful tool in human communication. It is how we convey ideas that are too complex or nebulous for words, and it allows us to do so across language barriers. And graphic design, which is all about communicating through recognizable imagery, regularly depends on symbolism.
Symbols are so ingrained in our cultural consciousness that we often use them without thinking. Sometimes, they are so old or obscure that it can be easy to forget their meaning. This presents a problem for graphic design: in order to use symbols effectively, designers must understand the ideas behind the icons. Otherwise, they may end up sending unintended messages through their work.
In order to make sure that this doesn’t happen and that you are able to tap into the ancient power of symbols, we’re going to provide an overview of the history of common symbols, their meanings, and modern interpretations of symbolism in design.
What is symbolism
Symbolism is the use of written marks, shapes, images and/or physical objects that have meaning assigned to them. They are all around us. The letters that make up the words on this page are technically symbols—we collectively agree that these abstract markings represent the sounds of human speech.
Symbols are useful because they provide a visual expression of meaning. For example, a red octagon is universally understood to mean “stop” and this can save lives on the road where reading longer words at high speeds is not practical. Often, the intended meaning can be much more complex than a single word, and symbols foster simplicity to speed up comprehension in the viewer. This is why graphic designers use symbolism in design to communicate visually.
Graphic designers often both reuse common symbols in their work and design new, original symbols. When it comes to logo design, for example, the goal is to create a unique pictogram that encapsulates what a brand is all about. In order to do so effectively, it is important to understand where many common symbols have come from and how they have historically played a role in visual language.
With that said, there are an overwhelming number of symbols that have cropped up throughout human history. For the purposes of this article, we will be grouping symbols into three general categories, diving into some particular examples, and discussing the ways in which modern designers have repurposed them.
When you consider the proliferation of scenes of animals in cave paintings, it is clear that the early humans understood their lives through their interactions with nature. This has remained with us even through the advancement of civilization and technology, and almost all symbols have some foundation in reverence for the natural world. Let’s go over a few of the common categories of nature symbolism and how they are implemented.
Animal symbols and medieval heraldry
Animal symbolism usually associates specific, personified qualities to animals. These qualities have been built up over millennia through mythology and stories: the deceptive serpent in the Book of Genesis, the graceful swan of Grimm’s Fairy Tales and the slow and steady tortoise of Aesop’s Fables. As such, many of these qualities are fairly intuitive (though they can vary by culture), for example in Western cultures:
- Lions symbolize royalty
- Doves symbolize peace
- Bulls symbolize rage
- Owls symbolize wisdom
- Dogs symbolize loyalty
Animal symbols were popularized by heraldic charges in the Middle Ages, in which shields and flags would bear coats of arms signifying group affiliation. Although all sorts of iconography (especially religious) were used, the most common heraldic charges included lions, eagles, wolves, bears, stags and even mythological creatures such as griffins or dragons—all of which were backed by decorative floral elements. This tradition has continued into modern flag designs, with many states and countries adopting specific animals as representative mascots.
Designers today sometimes repurpose medieval heraldry for brands—the competing factions of the modern age. Because coats of arms are archaic symbols in and of themselves, they are useful for brands cultivating a sense of old world tradition, as in the case of family owned businesses or classic services like wine making. Though they favor an illustrative style, designers can also use modern techniques, such as designer Skilline’s monoline approach below, to merge the past and the present.
The important thing is that they embody specific and unique personality traits through the use of thoughtful animal symbolism in design.
Parts of animals can also be isolated for their symbolic meaning. Wings are often used to represent freedom, antlers can represent authority (being similar to a crown), and paws, talons or tusks can symbolize strength.
Floral symbols often infuse plant imagery with growth-related meanings like renewal, serenity and aspiration. Many have their roots in nature worship common in ancient religions—for example, the Knot Tree of Celtic symbology. But just like animal symbols, many plants have historically been associated with specific qualities, such as:
- The olive branch as a symbol of peace
- The 3-leaf clover as a symbol of luck
- The rose as a symbol of love
- The lily as a symbol of mourning
- The laurel as a symbol of victory
In heraldry, plants often provided decorative flair, and similarly, modern designers tend to take advantage of curling vines and roots as framing elements. But some were relatively commonplace as the main subject of a heraldic charge, such as the rose in England and the fleur-de-lis in France (both of which became symbols of monarchy in their respective countries). It is important to research these medieval associations when designing floral coats of arms.
One of the more famous floral symbols of the new age has been the Lotus flower. In Hindu and Buddhist tradition, it is symbolic of divine purity, with gods depicted sitting or standing on one. It is also often depicted splayed flat with symmetrical open petals symbolic of the different chakras, energy that sustains human life. These associations have led to it becoming popular with art and design associated with health and wellness.
The four elements and zodiac symbols
Nature symbolism in design typically seeks to portray harmony and balance—in other words, nature as an interdependent ecosystem. This idea is exemplified by the four elemental symbols: earth, water, fire, and air. Together, these elements summon Captain Planet… er, contribute to a sense of well-being and wholeness. Separately, they each possess their own qualities: earth being solid and stable, water cool and calming, air light and moving, and fire dynamic and strong. Designers often portray them through color and/or abstract line art.
The elements of nature and their attributes are specified further within zodiac signs. While these signs have their basis in starry constellations, they each represent different animals and coincide with one of the four elements:
- Earth sign: Taurus, Virgil, Capricorn
- Water sign: Cancer, Scorpio, Pisces
- Air sign: Gemini, Libra, Aquarius
- Fire sign: Aries, Leo, Sagitarius
Likewise, the particulars of each zodiac sign informs the associations of the element to which it is attached. Designers today often use zodiac symbols—both their animals and elemental colors—as shorthands for attributes which embody the subject of their design.
Plants and animals are the most obvious subjects for nature symbology, but for a long while, humans—or more specifically gods and goddesses in the shape of humans—represented personifications of nature. Well-known Greek examples include Artemis, Pan and Gaia.
More commonly, you will see these coalesce into a singular goddess mother, also known as Mother Nature. Designers these days use goddess symbols as a reference to nature as a blessing, an icon of the wisdom and power of the natural world.
As we know today, the night sky is in effect part of nature, but for the most part, humans have not experienced it this way. The celestial world is remote, inscrutable, and at night it is riddled with cryptic signs and symbols. This often leads celestial symbolism in design to represent mystery and supernatural portent. Let’s go over some of the most common.
Being the giver of light and the most powerful object in the sky, the sun is one of the most prominent celestial symbols, often associated with royalty. For much of history, it was depicted as a perfect disc with a dot in the center, the circle itself symbolic of the cycle of rising and setting. Later, it transformed into a sphere with a cross in the center to indicate the four seasons, and the Hindu swastika would be derived from this version.
Eventually, the Greeks gave us the Vergina Sun, which was the precursor to the common style of solar symbol we know today: a golden circle with a ring of triangular rays stretching out from it. Much later, medieval knights added a face to the sun, called sun in splendor, with alternating straight and wavy to adorn shields.
For modern designers, solar symbols typically represent power and joy. Though sun in splendor iteration has been repopularized by emojis, it still tends to give a subtle, heraldic flavor to designs.
The moon, meanwhile, both acts as contrast and compliment to the sun. While the sun is gold and often mythologized as male, the moon is often represented as silver and female. Both sun and moon represent cycles, but the moon undergoes more dramatic changes, albeit predictably, every month. For this reason, it has become a symbol of transformation.
The most iconic of these forms, the crescent, was the moon’s symbol for eons. Because the crescent is a seemingly impossible shape in the sky and because it comes out in the cold darkness of night, it is typically associated with mysticism. Designers today use this symbol to lend brands an air of transformative magic.
It is important to note, however, that the crescent—especially when paired with the morning star—is often attributed to Islam after the symbol was adopted for medieval heraldry of the Ottoman Empire.
Constellation and planetary symbols
Star constellations are associated with the zodiac, but many also derive their meaning from mythological tales and the characters therein, such as Orion and Ursa Major. Being immortalized as a constellation was often the divine reward for a heroic quest or sacrifice.
The planets each have symbols as well, largely based on their Roman god counterparts—the symbols for Venus and Mars being where gender symbols come from—and each are associated with a metal, both of which designers can consciously use in their projects.
Constellations work well as backdrops or frames in graphic design compositions, similar to floral elements discussed earlier. Conversely, by outlining subjects in starry lines, designers are able to give their projects the same mythical weight which storytellers of old imbued their constellations.
In addition to nature and cosmology, humans have historically interpreted their world through recurring shapes. This has much to do with pattern recognition: people naturally recognize repetition in the world around them, and one of the most commonly repeating elements is basic geometry.
Triangles, pyramids and the all-seeing eye
The thing about simple geometry is that it tends to express purity and balance, all of which are ripe for symbolic meaning. Much of this is abstract and based on construction—for instance, circles can represent infinite cycles, and squares can represent stability.
One of the more meaningful basic shapes has been the triangle, or more specifically its 3D counterpart: the pyramid.
An equilateral triangle is essentially an arrow pointing upwards, and it tends to be associated with divinity.
Consider the worship of sacred mountains, including Mount Olympus, Mount Sinai and Mount Fuji. The Ancient Egyptians believed that the celestial North Pole in the night sky was the realm of the gods, and pyramids were built aiming towards this point presumably to give the deceased a pathway to the heavens.
The divine association is also why the Eye of Providence is often depicted within a triangle and/or on top of a pyramid. It represents both the idea of a deity who sees all and is the architect of the universe. It is also a possible relative to the Eye of Horus, used in Ancient Egypt to signify royalty.
In modern times, the eye has come to symbolize conspiracies due to its association with the Freemason secret society and its association with the government on the US dollar bill. Many designers use the All-Seeing Eye to suggest customers are part of an underground counterculture or will have access to exclusive knowledge following their association with a brand.
While basic shapes can contain subtle meaning in their simplicity, complex geometry invites mathematical precision into the equation. In many ways, math is the fundamental expression of the laws that govern our universe. Sacred geometry, which is a wholesale term for geometrical symbols that have spiritual meaning, can be understood as a way for ancient people to visualize and tap into the universal power of mathematical proportions. There are many sacred geometrical symbols across many different cultures, but we’ll name some notable ones here.
- The Mandala can take a variety of shapes, but the most basic construction consists of a square containing four T-shaped gates on each side and a bindu (a central point). Various geometric configurations, lotus petals, colors and/or depictions of deities emanate from the bindu. The meaning varies depending on the construction, as outlined in Hindu scriptures, but the mandala generally aids in meditation.
- The Yin Yang was used in Ancient China to represent the interconnectivity of opposing forces through perfectly proportioned curves.
- The Pentagram, or five-pointed star, originally represented various Catholic ideologies such as the five joyful mysteries of Mary. It later became branded as a symbol of evil and the occult, particularly when faced downwards so that two points are positioned at the top, reminiscent of devil horns.
- Metatron’s cube, aside from having an undeniably cool name, is made up of a series of interlocking hexagons, triangles, and circles which form a 3D cube at the center. Like the Pandora’s Box, Metatron’s cube is often symbolized as a container for divine knowledge, after the function of its messenger namesake.
- The Penrose triangle, while not sacred in the strictest sense as being tied to any religion, was created in the 1930s by Oscar Reutersvärd and represents impossibility in geometric form.
- The Golden Spiral is likely the most well-known to graphic designers. It is a spiral created using the golden ratio, and it is typically used in design as an aid in proportion and composition.
As there are many different possible configurations for sacred geometry, designers must do research when using one for symbolic meaning. It’s easy to think of sacred geometry as simply pretty and complex—like a piece of jewelry—but remember it is called sacred geometry for a reason.
These symbols are often associated with specific cultures and/or religions, and you should be mindful of your justification for using a symbol like this in your project. Not only is it respectful to do so, consumers will likely respond negatively to a brand that appropriates cultural symbols for commercial gain.
Assuming you have done this and are moving forward with sacred geometry, in general they are useful in projecting order and balance onto a design composition or supporting some focal imagery, such as an illustration.
Create your own symbolism design
Like all communication, graphic design relies on symbols. But while there is a long history behind the common symbols and their meanings, designers must do more than repurpose these symbols. Often, being a designer means coming up with a unique symbolic language for a business, so that consumers can understand their values and what sets them apart from competitors—all at a moment’s glance.
In order to do so effectively, it is important to look back at the symbols that have come before. If you’re considering using symbols in your own brand’s designs, be sure that you are working with a talented designer with an eye for symbolism.