Symbols are one of the earliest forms of written communication.
From cave walls to hieroglyphics to the printed word as we know it today, symbols are a powerful way to communicate concepts at a glance.
The ability of symbols to convey information, culture, and identity has made them an invaluable part of our shared visual language.
This is true not only in popular culture but also when it comes to business.
We live in a world where people and companies are recognized more for what they represent than who they are. This makes symbols a powerful and effective way of communicating.
As we emphasized in our guide on how to start a business,
A strong brand identity is the most effective way your new business can gain a competitive edge in an increasingly crowded marketplace.
Why use symbols in design?
Symbols can help customers understand your brand. As we wrote,
You can communicate a lot – and do it efficiently and effectively – if you understand your brand and make informed, thoughtful choices regarding fonts, shapes, lines, colors, and composition.
Logos, color, graphics, and text are used throughout our daily life as symbols to communicate deeply held meaning, often at a subconscious level.
Think about this effect when you see a red octagon, or an X on a map. These symbols speak to us on an almost primitive level.
As people interact with a symbol, it becomes filled with meaning.
When you see a person wearing a white coat and stethoscope you probably think that person is a doctor. The white coat and stethoscope are symbols for the medical profession.
It’s this recognition and how quickly they can communicate an idea or concept that makes them so powerful.
How Symbols Influence Branding
Companies use logos as symbols for their brand identity. As we wrote,
Whether every detail of a logo is intentional or not, every detail will influence people who see that logo.
Nothing should be arbitrary.
It’s in your best interest to make sure that every logo design choice is intentional and communicates the message you want to convey.
Thoughtless design choices lead to misleading or confusing logos. Or, even worse, logos that don’t say anything at all.
Symbols are a visual shorthand that businesses can use to imbue their brand identity with a deeper meaning.
While great business names can create a deep meaning too, symbols can be more powerful. You know the saying … a picture is worth 1,000 words.
Symbols create connections between your company and the ideas you want people to associate with your company.
Careful use of a symbol in your brand identity, including your business logo, can have a subtle or powerful effect (or both!).
It all comes down to what you want your brand to stand for and what you want to say.
Symbols are everywhere – you can find them on street signs, food products, sports teams, even on the laundering instructions tag inside your favorite shirt.
Not sure which one to use for your business? We’ve gathered a list of the more common ones (and their possible meanings) here.
Besides love and romance, roses also can represent appreciation, friendship, passion, and much more. Here, the color of the rose is just as important as the flower itself. Roses have experienced a resurgence in popularity; the symbol has emerged at the forefront of many modern designs.
Fire conjures up thoughts of anger, passion, and destruction. It can also signify rebirth (as in the myth of the Phoenix). Fire can also convey a blaze – of energy, speed, and bright, burning passion. Look no further than the iconic Firefox, the Mozilla logo that communicates a brand dedicated to speed and durability.
The “King of the Jungle” carries with it authority, strength, royalty, and steadfastness. The power and force that a lion communicates makes it a go-to choice for any business looking to demonstrate a respectable, strong standing in their marketplace.
The wolf is often used to show independence, freedom, the wild, strength, and guardianship. Logos that use a wolf in their design demonstrate a ferocity, agility, and clever edge that work especially well for sports-related logos.
The triangle is connected to ideas like stability, power, harmony, women’s health, and illumination. A dynamic shape, the triangle conveys focus, balance, and innovation. When shown oriented base-down, stability and strength become clear. However, when shown at an angle, relays an energized, spontaneous feeling instead.
Circles can evoke the concepts of wholeness, completion, infinity, cycles, and also represent the self. The cyclical, inclusive feeling a circle lends a business is an effective symbol for many businesses – Google Chrome notably uses it to great effect.
Dragons are especially revered in Asian culture and are often used to represent strength, wisdom, good luck, and potency. Dragons are commonly used in businesses looking to convey a nearly mystical power, unearthly wisdom and a fierceness that is intuitively understood by every viewer.
Trees are a common symbol for life and the outdoors. They can also signify fertility, good health, and calm. It’s a popular design symbol for a reason and can be found in many businesses seeking to emphasize their nature-oriented products and services.
Arrows can mean direction, speed, progress. They can also point out that something is important. They reinforce the idea of movement and are great for conveying expedient service – like FedEx’s iconic negative space logo (notice the white arrow between the E and x).
The sun is a potent symbol of life, power, glory, and energy. The heat and intensity the image of a sun communicate to a viewer creates a lasting impression of warmth, endurance, and limitless power. Businesses with a focus on stamina, eternity, and prosperity are quick to incorporate the sun in their logo designs.
The moon represents the rhythm of time, peacefulness, femininity eternity, and enlightenment. The moon can be used by a company seeking to demonstrate an ongoing relationship with their customers. P&G notably uses a crescent moon to reflect their steadfast devotion to their customers through all of the phases of their days, weeks, and lives.
Flags can have many different meanings depending on the context and what color they are. White flags can mean surrender or peace, red can mean warning, attention, or caution, and blue often symbolizes freedom. Using a flag in a design can, therefore, represent a number of meanings – be careful that your color choice doesn’t send a potentially conflicting message about your brand.
Owls are synonymous with wisdom, insight, the night, grace, mystery, and learning. Education and literacy institutions are quick to adopt the owl into their organizations. The wise owl is famously used in Wise Foods’ logo – a bold decision to inspire confidence in consumer snacking habits.
Water can represent life, cleaning, creation, and purity. The cleanliness and health water conveys is powerful, and can be used in a variety of forms: water droplets, waves, and rain showers are commonly used in businesses seeking to demonstrate environmental, calming, or cleansing brand values. Method incorporates the water drop shape directly into its packaging for greater impact.
Clouds are commonly used by climate/weather businesses, but recently, have also become a major symbol of online storage. Any business that uses cloud imagery should consider their specific marketplace. Using a less literal representation is effective with technologically oriented businesses. A more on the nose approach would be appropriate for a business that deals in weather, climate, or other traditional associations.
Hearts are a straightforward way to demonstrate love, romance, and enthusiasm – the retail industry, in particular, uses hearts in product packaging, package graphics, and product design to great effect (especially on Valentines Day). Other businesses focused on health, vitality, and emotional welfare also use the symbol to great effect. Hearts are a versatile symbol and are an increasingly popular choice for a wide range of businesses.
Tips on using symbols in logos and brand identities
There are some important considerations if you want to incorporate symbols into your brand identity.
As symbols often come loaded with meaning, their use and how they can be interpreted should be weighed against your branding goals.
Here are some things to keep in mind.
Tell a story
Not all symbols are equal! It’s crucial that you do your research to ensure whatever symbols you choose are clear and concise, and add to the narrative that is your brand.
Don’t choose solely based on visual or aesthetic beauty. Tell a story.
Symbols can mean different things in different cultures and countries.
For example, the bald eagle may be a symbol of the United States of America to most, but to Native Americans, it is a symbol of nature and a messenger from the Creator.
Colors are another good example of a symbol that can have many meanings. As we wrote in our look at what colors say about your small business:
Culture and context can also influence how a color is interpreted. Therefore, do your due diligence and research your audience so you can make the best choices based on their specific backgrounds.
Doing some due diligence before you choose a symbol is especially important if you run an international business.
Choosing multiple symbols for your brand can have its pitfalls. You don’t want to choose symbols that have conflicting or unexpected ideas.
Symbols can be combined in very powerful ways, but research is again your best protection against unfortunate combinations.
Ultimately you want your brand to have a unified message, and whatever symbols you choose should help and not hinder this.
Successful logos have a meaning behind them.
These powerful logos make a lasting impact because they communicate your brand’s message in a compelling, effective way.
A thoughtfully used symbol gives your logo the powerful impact your brand needs to stand out in the marketplace.
Make sure that you choose a symbol or two that form a strong connection to your brand’s values, mission, and personality. If you aren’t careful and considered in choosing a symbol for your logo, you risk sending confusing, mixed, or even negative messages to your customers.
Be intentional with the symbol you choose and that it clearly supports the brand persona you’re presenting.
Symbols are powerful, and they can evoke almost subliminal connections and meanings. For companies eager to join memorable concepts with their businesses, symbols can create brand equity. As David Asker wrote in Managing Brand Equity:
When products and services are difficult to differentiate, a symbol can be the central element of brand equity, the key to differentiating characteristics of the brand. The symbol can by itself create awareness, associations, and a liking or feelings which in turn can affect loyalty and perceived quality.”
If you’re looking for ways to connect your brand message on a deeper level with your consumers, symbols may be just what you’ve been looking for.
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