The power of symbols

The power of symbols

We see symbols every day and everywhere—the recycling symbol on trashcans, road signs, pictograms of different olympic sports and many others. They have one thing in common—we instantly derive their meaning through our real life associations as we look at them. Here I'll describe some symbol characteristics and what they mean to me.


Not all symbols are equally intuitive. Even slight changes in seemingly intuitive things can produce unexpected results. We must be able to tell immediately what a pictogram is all about or it probably has a bad design. Steve Krug has published the book "Don't Make Me Think" and its title can be a seen as a rule for more intuitive design.


A symbol has to be very simple in order to influence the viewer and be remembered. Complicated ones are hard to perceive and memorize, so we prefer simple forms. If we increase the symbol's complexity linearly, we would need exponentially more time to process it. Simple symbols are effective and have a better reach.


If we use symbols with different styles for the same purpose, we violate their consistency. On the web, we can find icon sets, whose icons have slightly different, inconsistent styles that lower the value of the whole set. Especially three-dimensional symbols or icons can have many parameters, which can be hard to preserve: rotation angle, scale, form, colors and shading, shadows and many others. Consistency is easier to achieve with two-dimensional symbols as you can see on the figure above.


When a duplicate is found, a symbol is no longer distinguishable. The task of making one unique gets harder, the more symbols are created. But the effort is worthy if the symbol can be eye-catching and more memorable. We need to research if a symbol is reserved, whether it can speak to our audience meaningfully and what we want to express through it.


When we step back and look at a symbol from a distance, it should still remain clear and crisp, no matter the context it is placed in. Simple forms that are at the same time different contribute to such clarity.


Symbols awake our emotions when we look at them. We may want to examine how the audience perceives them and responds to them. Feelings can vary from joy and happiness to anger or fear, so must must define in advance the effect we want to achieve through them. Testing with a small group of people is a good, cost-effective way to do that.

Where can we use these characteristics?

Possibilities are unlimited—in branding, marketing, industrial design, print design, web design and more.