If one were asked to sum up the essence of graphic design in one concept, then “symbolic representation for the purpose of communication” might be a good summation. But if one were pressed for just one single word, then the word “symbol” might well serve the best.


But just what is a symbol? And how is a ‘symbol’ different from a ‘sign’?


Here’s one way to look at it; you are driving down a street somewhere that you are not familiar with and see a signpost alongside the road. Upon the metallic square atop the pole are emblazoned the words “HACKENSACK UNIVERSITY MEDICAL CENTER.” Below those words is the picture of an arrow pointing straight ahead, and then the words, “2.5 MILES”. But then you drive a little further and come upon another signpost; upon this square shape there are no words, but simply the graphic, pictorial representation of a large building with a red cross upon it, and an arrow indicating ‘straight ahead’. Both of these street markers are signs, but the first is purely a sign while the second one has employed a symbol rather than words. Again, while driving along you come upon another sign that reads “PEDESTRIAN CROSSING… YIELD”. A little further along, you come to another signpost, but this one has no words; instead, it contains the simplified, stylized caricature of a stick-figure person, one leg thrust forward indicating the act of walking. You instantaneously and immediately recognize that you are about to enter a crossing area of the street where pedestrians have the right of way over cars, and you look to see if there are any people crossing the street for whom you will slow down as you approach closer.


From this, we can simply deduce that a sign is something that points to something else (such as the hospital, or the fact that there might be pedestrians around to whom we must yield). But the sign is never the thing which it points to. A symbol, however, does not merely point to the object in question; in some way, a symbol stands in for or intrinsically represents the object in question. In order to accomplish this task – as opposed to merely pointing toward something else – the symbol must contain some essential property or quality belonging to the object it represents and stands in for. For example, the graphic representation of the pedestrian appears to be walking, even as an actual person walks.


And therein lies the clue to the secret behind great design.

…to be continued…


Next time… more on symbols and how they relate to graphic design.

(Update) Click here for Part 2


By: Ted DeCagna


     Ted DeCagna Graphic Design… clients have been coming to us for over 28 years for…Graphic Design… Logo Design & Business Stationery… Company Brochures… Photography… Package Design… Website Design & Development… Print Advertising and more. Winner of more than 25 professional design awards. You can connect with Ted on Google+.