Symbols to communicate ideas have been around for thousands of years. Today, they are commonly found in brand logos, such as Shell, Travelers, Boeing, Pepsi, and Nike, for example. Notice how some logo symbols are very literal in appearance (a shell), and others are quite abstract (a swoosh). While logos can evolve over time (and depart from their original, literal appearance), new logos are being launched all the time. So when evaluating a symbol for a logo, an important consideration is to decide whether it should be ‘literal’ in appearance, or decidedly unique. It is important to strategically start off right (remember, first impressions are lasting ones, and they can take less than a tenth of a second to form). To better understand the use of symbols, it may help to know alittle more about how symbols evolved, especially literal-appearing symbols.
The First Symbols
Symbols that directly represent a concept, such as a ‘person’ or ‘people’ or ‘house’ or ‘snake’, are called ‘pictograms‘. Pictograms have been around for as long as civilization. Ancient examples of pictograms can be seen in various forms throughout time, such as in cave art, rock art (known as petroglyphs, e.g. Anasazi of the US Southwest), and designs carved on the ground (known as geoglyphs, e.g. Nazca lines of Peru). Some cultures over time developed highly stylized pictograms, better known as ideograms (a visible use today is the Chinese language). Today we see evolve before our eyes all kinds of pictograms used in every day life, such as emoticons used in text messages, smart phone app icons, and various forms of environmentally ‘safe’ symbols (e.g. symbols used to communicate something is recycled or organic).
The desire to standardize and use pictograms in more modern history came during the Industrial Revolution when large numbers of diverse peoples of different languages and education came together (cities, where the jobs were). Where some philosophers, like Freidrich Engels (often associated with Karl Marx) saw urban environments as exploitative and intrinsically oppressive, others such as Otto Neurath saw an opportunity.
Otto Neurath lived in Vienna in the early 20th Century. He was a philosopher and urban planner during a time of great change and upheaval. He wanted to bring organization, clarity and commonality to the masses by developing isotype – a method of showing social, technological, biological and historical connections in pictorial form. Neurath wanted standardized symbols to ‘make it possible for a casual spectator to gain knowledge during a coffee break, for example, or during periods of complete distraction.’ (“Otto Neurath: The Language of the Global Polis” 2008 Nader Vassoughian, NAi). This standardization and use of symbols, rather than written words, would help to humanize and democratize the urban landscape and assist the widest audience possible. He believed standardized symbols, when viewed, must communicate:
“At first glance the most important aspect of the subject; obvious difference must be distinguishable. At second glance, it should be possible to see the more important details; and at third glance, whatever details there may be. A picture that has still further information to give at fourth or fifth glance is… to be rejected as pedagogically unsuitable.”
Otto Neurath and his fellow members of the Vienna Circle helped to usher in a new, global language that we today commonly see in airports, highways, shopping malls, and many other places. These little signs for directing us through buildings, highways and transit systems are often referred to as wayfinding, and have often saved me getting completely lost! What started with a collection of generalized public service messages has grown to become a global language of symbols (see The Noun Project). These public symbols are meant to be shared and exchanged for the purpose of creating a universal language, meaningful to the widest group of peoples possible.
Symbols In Brands
In contrast, symbols used for brands are meant to be proprietary, and associated specifically with a product, service or company. But, how unusual and/or abstract can a symbol be when used in branding? Should it be unusual and ‘sculptural’? or familiar to the average viewer? Deciding whether a brand should be easy to comprehend or highly unusual is important for strategic reasons. This brings me to an insight I have when considering how literal or abstract a symbol might be (once a determination a symbol is important to have for your brand):
Brands that will receive little advertising, PR or other forms of repetitive exposure (the ‘fourth or fifth glance’, as Neurath would put it), benefit from the use of more literal symbols. If there will be more opportunities to get a brand in front of target audiences ( e.g. ads, billing statements, signage, online, etc.), then a wider-range of symbol types can be considered, including abstract symbols. More brand exposure allows for the training of audiences to recognize your brand identity.
This idea is based on an innate ability of humans (and animals in general) to recognize ‘patterns’, like pictograms, and associate them with meaning based on previous experience or knowledge. If we recognize something, like a symbol of a hand, umbrella, globe, or lighthouse, then we can quickly connect it with a familiar meaning. This can be a very useful tactic for brands with limited exposure opportunities (e.g. limited ad budgets). However, familiar symbols may not be distinctive enough to set a brand apart, and in some instances it can be hard for a brand to claim images that are very common, such as an apple. But given enough visibility, repetition, time, and support by great service and products, like Apple, this can be overcome. If we do not recognize a symbol, and it is abstract, it is harder to remember and may take multiple impressions before it is fixed in our memories. Thus, the use and type of symbols in branding is always a strategic balance and should be considered against a brand’s planned use and application.
It is important to note that the use of pictograms in a brand identity (logo), without investing in any stylistic distinctiveness, will unintentionally communicate a generic and uninspired feeling. It may even unintentionally suggest a lack of interest in engaging important audiences (e.g. the use of clip art may look just like that – clip art!). So be sure to make even the most literal symbols in a brand uniquely your own. When it is strategically beneficial to use symbols in branding, it is essential to consider creative ways that balance familiarity with uniqueness.