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
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