Takeover Tuesday: Symbolism in design - the power of imagery

In this blog, our Senior Account Manager Sarah looks at symbolism in design and the meaning behind some well-known symbols used throughout history and even in design today.

A universal language

In design, we often use imagery and symbolism to convey a particular meaning or emotion and to communicate our message. Symbolism has existed for thousands of years, dating back to ancient times – look at Egyptian hieroglyphics and even cave paintings! As humans, we have always told stories through art, and added meaning to certain images and symbols; they have become a universal language of their own. Even in the digital age we live in now, we have a whole library of emojis at our fingertips which we use every day to express a specific meaning or emotion, and which are understood globally no matter what language you speak.

So where did these meanings come from? How do we know that a heart symbolises love, and a dove symbolises peace for example? There are so many interesting meanings behind some of these well-known symbols and most come from stories in ancient mythology or cultural beliefs which originate from thousands of years ago.

I was inspired to write this blog after a trip to Vietnam earlier this year. Visiting the many temples and historical places such as Hue, Hanoi and Hoi An, I noticed certain symbols were used again and again in paintings, architecture etc.: dragons, phoenixes and turtles were everywhere! After some research and speaking to some local guides, I discovered that these held important meanings in ancient Vietnamese culture, as they are three of the four sacred animals (the fourth being a unicorn): the dragon represents the emperor and so signifies power, nobility and immortality; the phoenix represents the empress and symbolises grace, virtue and pride, the turtle symbolises longevity, strength and intelligence; and the unicorn symbolises peace, mercy and good fortune. These symbols and mythical creatures date back thousands of years and are still used in Vietnam today as part of their art and culture.

Dragon symbol image

This got me thinking about other symbols used in design and throughout history, and how we still recognise and use so many of these symbols today, which were first used hundreds and thousands of years ago. In this blog I will look at some examples of symbolism throughout history and the meaning behind some of the most well-known symbols in art and design.

Ancient symbols

Before people could write, symbols were used to represent words and concepts and were often associated with cultural and religious beliefs. Ancient civilisations used symbols to embody their Gods, beliefs, and aspirations. They were used to communicate values and philosophies, to worship their Gods and to connect with nature and family. There are so many ancient symbols with fascinating meanings and history, I’m sure you could (and people probably do) write a thesis on this topic alone, but here are just a few examples:

Ancient symbols image

The Egyptian Ankh – this was the hieroglyph for the word life and therefore has become a symbol of life itself, and often also associated with the afterlife as ancient Egyptians believed that your time on Earth was only one part of your eternal life. The symbol can often be seen on tomb paintings carried by Egyptian Gods, or on amulets worn by pharaohs. It also inspired the cross symbol synonymous with Christianity as it represents everlasting life due to Christ’s sacrifice and resurrection.

The Greek Caduceus – this is associated with Hermes, the messenger of the Gods, as it is the staff carried by the herald. It originally symbolised peace and later came to symbolise commerce and negotiation as Hermes is also the god of trade, travel and wealth, and patron of languages (amongst other things). The staff depicts a laurel or olive wand with wings, surrounded by two intertwined snakes. A common misconception is that it symbolises medicine, however, the medicine symbol is actually the Rod of Asclepius, the Greek god of healing and medicine, which is very similar but has just one snake around the staff.

The Roman Laurel Wreath – this well-known symbol actually originates from Ancient Greece as it was the symbol of the Greek god Apollo and laurel wreaths were awarded to winners at the Olympic games and poetic competitions (that’s where the phrase “poet laureate” comes from). In Ancient Rome, laurel wreaths were awarded to commanders and worn by emperors such as Julius Caesar as a symbol of status and success. Today, laurel crowns are still awarded to graduates in Italy and have become synonymous with achievement and awards.

Cultural symbols

Whilst most cultural symbols originate from ancient history, these symbols are still widely used today and can be seen in many fashion, jewellery, and fabric designs, on book covers, on souvenirs and even as tattoos. They are well-known symbols often associated with their original culture or country, but often their original meaning is lost. Here are some examples of some such symbols and their origins:

Culture symbols image

Celtic Knot – often used as decoration on metal and stone and strongly associated with Irish culture, Celtic Knots resemble the eternity of life, as they have no start and no end. There are many different types of Celtic Knots which have slightly different meanings but all follow this theme of eternity. The Trinity Knot, or Triquetra, for example, with its three arches is said to symbolise life, death and rebirth, or mind, body and spirit connected, and later became linked with the Holy Trinity (hence Trinity knot) in Christianity.

Yin-Yang – this famous symbol demonstrates the ancient Taoist philosophical concept that the world is made up of opposite but interconnected forces (Yin and Yang) e.g. day and night, sun and moon, male and female etc. Yin is the dark side (negative, cold, feminine) and Yang is the light side (positive, warm, masculine), they exist in harmony with each other and can often complement or coexist with each other.

The circular and teardrop shapes are meant to show that Yin and Yang are always moving and transforming into each other: day becomes night, night becomes day, and the opposite colour circles within the halves show that one can’t exist without the other as they contain part of the other e.g. shadows exist because of light. This yin-yang philosophy of cosmic duality, change and harmony within the world underpins many Chinese teachings and today it is still used in medicine, martial arts and Feng Shui.

Dreamcatcher – these famous decorations were used by Native American tribes as a protective talisman to protect people from bad dreams. Originating from the Ojibwe (Chippewa) tribe, they believed bad dreams were caught in the web and destroyed by the morning sunlight, while the good dreams passed through the feathers to the person sleeping below – they often hung them above their children’s beds.

The circular frame, the “Hoop of Life”, represents the circle of life, the “Web of Life”, is woven like a spider’s web since Native Americans believed in a Spider Woman as Mother Earth who protects all her beings, there is traditionally also a bead or stone in the web to represent the spider. Traditionally dreamcatchers were made of natural materials from Earth like wood, leather and bird feathers and would be returned to nature when the children became adults. They are now a symbol of unity for Native American tribes.

Animal symbols

Animals have been depicted in art since man first began painting – there have been many cave paintings found of deer, mammoths, horses, oxen… Throughout the centuries, animals have featured in many artworks, whether ancient mythological beasts, hunting or battle scenes, animals in their natural habitat or portraits of pets, if you go to an art gallery you are guaranteed to find works including animals. Many animals are known for certain characteristics, and they are included in many myths and folklore, so there is a lot of symbolism linked to animals for different cultures, let’s take a look at some examples:

Animal symbols image

Stag – the majestic stag is seen as a symbol of power, strength and leadership and holds great significance in many cultures and religions. For example, the Ancient Celts believed the antlers of the stag represented the branches of the Word Tree and linked Earth with the spiritual realms, and in Christianity the stag is associated with Christ and the path towards righteousness as its antlers point towards heaven. The stag is also seen as a spiritual guide and symbolises renewal or growth as a stag sheds its antlers and grows new ones each year. You will also often see stags on coat of arms as a symbol of nobility and strength for prominent families.

Lion – “The King of the Jungle”, lions are seen as fierce, protective and regal animals and often symbolise family (lions live in prides and have an alpha male leader), power, strength and courage. You will often see statues of lions at the entrances to many buildings and temples as a sign of power and/or protection against evil spirits. Lions are also associated with the zodiac sign for Leo in astrology, said to be ruled by the sun and people of this star sign are loyal and passionate people, sometimes dominant and like to be the centre of attention: King or Queen energy.

Owl – Owls symbolise wisdom, change and knowledge. They are often seen as spiritual guides and linked with mystery and death due to their connotations with the supernatural. In Native American culture, they believed owls were the spirits of their ancestors and so were the wise elders of their land – some believed they would hoot when someone was about to die, and some believed they guarded the passage between the land of the living and the land of the dead. In Ancient Egypt, owls were seen as the gatekeepers of the underworld and protected the souls of those who strayed into the land by accident. They can also be seen as a good omen, however, and in Japanese and Chinese culture, they are a symbol of good fortune and protection - they believe by placing an owl in your home, you will be protected against negative energies.

Nature symbols

As with animals, there is also a lot of symbolism with nature which comes from various cultural beliefs and often linked with spirituality and religion. The four elements (Earth, Air, Fire, Water) is just one example which has so many meanings in philosophy, astrology and western culture. However, I am going to look at a few examples of symbols which we see almost every day in art, literature, and even as emojis to find out why they have such symbolic significance:

Oak Tree – The oak tree symbolises wisdom, stability, strength and endurance and is seen as sacred in many cultures. In Ancient Greece and Rome they believed Zeus / Jupiter communicated and passed on his wisdom through the oak tree and so many ceremonies and celebrations were held under oak trees. In many cultures the oak tree symbolised divinity and it was also said to have healing powers. In some mythology, it also represents the world with the branches and trunk representing the heavens and the living world, and the roots the underworld. Because oak trees live for hundreds of years, they are also a symbol of resilience and commitment – did you know that oak is the symbol for the 80th wedding anniversary?

Rose – Roses are synonymous with beauty, love and passion and can symbolise different things depending on their colour: red roses symbolise love and passion, white roses symbolise purity and innocence, yellow roses symbolise friendship and joy, and pink roses symbolise gratitude and appreciation. They have a long history of cultural significance: in ancient cultures they were associated with love and beauty being connected to goddesses such as Aphrodite and Venus, in Christianity the white rose represents the purity of the Virgin Mary, whilst the red rose represents the blood of Christ, in medieval culture the rose was a symbol of nobility and power and became the symbol for England, and even today it is still seen as the symbol for love and beauty.

Apple – Apples are often featured in fairytales and mythology (Snow White, Adam & Eve…) and have become synonymous with desire, beauty, knowledge and love. In Norse mythology apples are associated with the goddess of eternal youth, Iðunn, who grants gods immortality by giving golden apples. In China, the apple is a symbol of feminine beauty and youth and also represents Spring. In Denmark and Sweden, in the 18th century teachers were gifted apples to mark their knowledge and intellect and the apple is still widely seen as a symbol of school and teaching. Apples are also symbolic of sensuality and fertility, with its connotations with the forbidden fruit in Christianity, and in Greek mythology tales of Dionysus and Aphrodite, and Hera and Zeus, apples were given as tokens of affection or as wedding gifts so the marriage would be ‘fruitful’.

More than just an image

Symbolism in design is more than just aesthetics, each image has a deeper symbolic meaning which mostly comes from mythology and folklore and have existed for thousands of years. Even if we are not aware of the origins of these symbols anymore, we still understand the meaning associated with these well-known symbols and continue to use them in art and design today. As the saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words, and it is so true - symbols are powerful ways to communicate these ancient stories.

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