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Signs and Symbols

Often the name, product, or purpose of a company or organization is given a distinctive and memorable appearance by a graphic designer. An identifying mark, or trademark, based on letter forms is known as a logo (short for logotype). An identifying mark based on pictorial (rather than typographic) sources is called a symbol.

On the most basic level, we communicate through symbols. The sound of the syllable dog, for example, has no direct relation to the animal it stands for. In German, after all, the syllables Hund indicate the same animal. Each word is part of a larger symbolic system, a language. Visual communication is also symbolic. Letters are symbols that represent sounds; the lines that we use to draw representational images are symbols for perception.

Symbols convey information or embody ideas. Some are so common that we find it difficult to believe they did not always exist. Who, for example, first used arrows to indicate directions? We follow them instinctively now, but at some point they were new and had to be explained. Other symbols embody more complex ideas and associations. Symbols that instantly communicate important information without words help meet the needs of travelers in foreign countries. When such symbols are not easily understood, they cause more problems than they solve.

Graphic designers are often asked to create visual symbols. In 1974, the U.S. Department of Transportation commissioned the American Institute of Graphic Arts to develop a set of symbols that could communicate essential information across language barriers to international travelers. Designers selected by the institute researched symbols then in use in transportation centers around the world, evaluating them for clarity and effectiveness. The final set of symbols were drawn up the design firm of Cook and Shanosky Associates and introduced in a poster, which explains their meanings. Today, the symbols are a familiar part of signs in airports and train stations, where they help direct travelers to bus and taxi stands, telephones, hotel information, rest rooms, and other key facilities.

Among the most persuasive symbols in our visual environment today are logos and trademarks, which are symbols of an organization or product. Simple, clear, distinctive, and memorable corporate logos have become familiar to millions of people around the world, instantly calling to mind the company and its products or services. As with any symbol, a logo means nothing in itself. It is up to an organization to make its logo familiar and to convince people through a sound business practices to associate it with such virtues as service, quality, and dependability. Because symbols serve as focal points for associations of ideas and emotions, one of the most effective ways for a company to change its image is to redo its logo. A logo is often the first and key element in a complete corporate identity program, which extends a unified design concept to advertising, posters, packaging, stationary, folders, business cards, and other printed matter.

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