SHAPES: SEMIOTICS AND SYMBOLISM
Just like color, shapes instantly form ideas and associations in our mind. The primary difference is that many of the associations of color are based on their occurrence in nature, whereas the associations behind shapes are more abstract, and have been built upon, arguably, since the beginning of human civilization. There is a lot to unpack when it comes to shapes and, on the larger whole, visuals, so we’ll attempt to make sense of some of the most prominent ideas and terms as they relate to shapes and their meaning.
As abstract as the concept may sound, the core idea behind semiotics is the process of extracting meaning from something. More specifically, it’s the process of extracting meaning from a sensory perception. If this sounds extremely vague and broad, it’s because it is. While the concept of semiotics applies to all of the senses, we will be focusing on the visual aspect of it. In that sense, semiotics is the process of seeing something, and your mind processing what that thing is, and what it means to you.
Imagine that you are looking at a leaf on a tree. In semiotics, the leaf is the ‘sign’. You have a certain understanding of what that leaf is; that is, you can form a mental construct of a leaf, as you understand it. This is defined by an immeasurable number of influences, including instinct, what you have learned, and personal experience. This mental construct that you formed might be called an ‘object’ or ‘signal’. Many people who study and philosophize in semiotics will use various words to mean slightly different things, and we’ll look at a few of those distinctions a bit further down.
Whatever level of understanding you have in regards to that leaf, you have completed the semiotic process.
Language is a formal branch of semiotics; ‘formal’ meaning that it hinges on logic, per the logician Charles Sanders Peirce. When you read the word ‘leaf’, you form a similar mental construct of what you understand a leaf to be. You managed to form a similar object in your mind, even though you weren’t actually looking at a leaf. The reason is because the letters of the alphabet are all symbols. The symbols themselves have meanings, but infinitely more meanings are made when you use those letters in specific orders (syntax). In other words, when you use those letters to spell a word. When the letters L, E, A, and F are used in that order, you associate them with a leaf. So whereas the first example had the actual leaf as the ‘sign’, the word ‘leaf’ is the ‘sign’ in this case. The concept of semiotics also covers the same process of you phonetically hearing the word “leaf,” and so on.
In a weird, abstract way, semiotics is the most all-encompassing idea of association. This means that. Or in the case of something so simple as a leaf, it might feel more like this means this.
Along those same lines, the concept of semiotics also works as analogies between different representations of the same object. The actual leaf is analogous to the word ‘leaf’ in that they both form the approximate object of a leaf in your mind.
Furthermore, semiotics also applies to other aspects of language, like sign language, body language, inflection, tone, and much more.
DYADIC SEMIOTICS (FERDINAND DE SAUSSURE)
According to Ferdinand de Saussure, semiotics is primarily concerned with the relationship between two concepts: the ‘sign’ and the ‘signal’. The ‘sign’ is the visual that is being processed. We’ve already defined the signs in the above examples as being the leaf itself and the word ‘leaf’, respectively. The ‘signal’ is the meaning derived from the sign, so the mental construct of the leaf.
TRIADIC SEMIOTICS (CHARLES SANDERS PEIRCE)
Charles Sanders Peirce complicates the sign-signal relationship by factoring in the individual, creating a triadic relationship of sign, object, and interpretant. Peirce keeps the idea of the sign pretty much the same, but transforms the ‘signal’ into the ‘object’. The interpretant is all of the individual factors that go into processing the sign: instinct, knowledge, experience, etc. The interpretant is in a sense a filter that fundamentally shapes the way in which the individual constructs the object in their mind.
There’s certainly no denying that individuals perceive things differently, so I think it’s fair to say that the interpretant always needs to be factored in how the sign will be processed. However, the dyadic nature of the sign-signal relationship is fundamentally simpler to grasp.
When it comes to language and processing meaning, do emojis help or hurt communication? Is it possible that they could do both? In which scenarios would they help communication? Which scenarios would they hurt communication?
Speaking in simpler terms than semiotics, but still directly related, are signs, as most people know them. I’m talking stop signs, bathroom signs, etc. Generally speaking, signs indicate to the viewer the approximate idea of something that is likely imminent or in close proximity. A stop sign means that you should stop because there is probably an intersection or crosswalk nearby. A bathroom sign on a door indicates that there is likely a bathroom behind that door. Within the larger idea, lightning is a sign that there is a storm nearby.
Some signs aren’t so direct, and require a bit of deduction. Hot bear poop is a sign that there is a bear nearby, and you should stop playing with its shit and get to safety.
ICONS AND ICONOGRAPHY
Historically, icons were recurring symbols in archaeology. Iconography was the study of these symbols. Originally, knowledge of the culture informed the meaning of the icons, but eventually the icons used by a culture came to influence the understanding of that culture. This was through the consistent meanings that otherwise unrelated cultures would put behind similar symbols.
Then, the word ‘iconography’ came to be associated with recurring visual themes and motifs in religious art. Religious figures, such as angels or saints, were known as icons. These religious paintings themselves came to be known to many as icons, but many people outside of the religious art community prefer them to be known as ‘icon paintings’ to help differentiate from the more modern and widespread uses of the word.
Nowadays, the terms icon and iconography can mean a few different things.
Icons are small pictures that indicate or are otherwise relevant to function . These are most commonly found on computers, smart phones, and other interactive devices. App icons are one such use.
In film studies, iconography means recurring visuals and styles, and is often used to define genre tropes. For example, derelict wastelands are part of the iconography of the post-apocalyptic subgenre.
An icon might also simply be a symbol that has become recognizable within any given culture or time period. The golden arches of McDonald’s is an icon of the Western world in the 20th and 21st centuries.
SYMBOLS AND SYMBOLISM
We’ve talked a lot about symbols already, but in an attempt to define what they are: symbols are things - often (simple) images or characters - that represent other things or ideas. An inverse way of thinking about them is ideas (of things) that are represented by images or characters. These are usually context and use specific, with different systems and locations having different sets of symbols. Various cultures use different alphabets, for example, but while the symbols and syntax might be different, the final meaning can be the same. This is the fundamental difference between languages.
Symbolism is an extension of this, but one in which objects and things often represent more abstract ideas. Symbolism is often context-specific, meaning that any given object can represent different ideas in the context of different experiences, perspectives, or works of art. The meanings behind various colors illustrate this point well. The color yellow can mean energy and warmth, but it can also mean cowardice and madness, depending on the context of its use.
If an object is symbolic, it means that it represents an idea. In one work of fiction, a spoon can be symbolic of hunger and poverty. In another work, a spoon might represent magic and psychic abilities.
Fog and mist are genre tropes of noir films. What is the fog symbolic of?
Emblems are typically made up of several symbols, which together are meant to symbolically represent a nation, family, team, or kingdom. The primary purpose behind an emblem is to be a unique symbol.
Logos are symbols or emblems that represent a company, product, organization, etc. There is a fair amount of crossover as to what would be considered an emblem and/or logo. A fairly simple differentiating factor is that an emblem’s purpose is to be unique, while a logo’s purpose is to be recognizable or eye-catching.
Simple shapes can carry meaning much in the same way that colors can. Many of these subconscious meanings have ancient roots, and are still used in art and marketing today.
The circle, having no real beginning or end, is cyclical and everlasting. Many of its meanings are derived from these simple, but very big ideas.
The circle is continuous, and often is used to represent infinity. The actual infinity symbol, being two touching circles, not only represents infinity, but also a balance, or duality, between any number of things; light and dark, good and evil, male and female, etc. Similar to infinity, the circle also represents timelessness and eternity.
If given some vector or direction, a circular shape can also represent mobility. This is a rather obvious association when you think of the practical application of circles and spheres, which are mostly wheels and gears. When used as a kind of boundary or bounding box, a circle can represent wholeness or totality.
In a more abstract sense, the circle can also represent perfection and enlightenment. Before computers, and arguably still to this day, it was notoriously impossible for a human to create a perfect circle. Enlightenment is perhaps related to this idea because much of enlightenment is about acceptance, and the imperfect nature of living. Enlightenment might also be related through the idea of reincarnation, a cycle of life, death, and rebirth. The ideas of enlightenment and reincarnation are shared by many religions stemming from Tibetan Buddhism.
Triangles can represent many ideas, depending on whether you focus on the aspect of its relation to the number 3, its relation to the arrow sign, or its physical properties.
The three sides, corners, and points of a triangle have led it to represent many ideas with triple relationships. In religion and philosophy alone, there are many meanings behind the triangle. As mentioned above, the idea of reincarnation hinges on life, death, and rebirth; the three stages of the soul. In those same philosophies, there is also the relationship of the body, mind, and soul or spirit; at least for us in the ‘life’ stage of the soul cycle. Similarly, the triangle can also represent the Holy Trinity, which is usually associated with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost in Christianity, but many religions offer like ideas.
In physics and science fiction, a triangle might represent matter, space, and time. Within each of those, there are three aspects each (sort of). There are three ‘simple’ states of matter: solid, liquid, and gas. (There is actually a fourth state of matter, plasma, but this is a relatively new and mostly unknown fact.) Likewise, there are the three ‘simple’ physical dimensions of space, which is represented in math terminology as the x-axis, y-axis, and z-axis. As related to time, a triangle can mean the past, the present, and the future.
The triangle’s relation to the arrow has led to it being commonly used as a directional vector to indicate up, down, left, right, etc. Its history with tape media has also linked the triangle to the ‘play’ button.
The triangle has long represented the ideas of mountains and caves, depending on its orientation. A triangle with a point facing straight up represents a mountain, whereas the point facing down represents a cave.
Related to the triangle’s physical properties, it can be associated with the ideas of strength or balance, depending on its orientation (much like its relation to mountains and caves). When the base of the triangle is facing down, with the point up, this represents strength. Physically represented, this triangle has a wide base and low center of gravity, so it would be very difficult to knock over, thus the association of strength. When the triangle is positioned with the point down and the base up, this represents balance. It might seem ironic, since this shape would usually just fall over, but that’s the point. To stay in this shape and position, the triangle requires perfect balance.
Much in the same way that many of the triangle’s associations come from it having three sides, the square is largely defined by its four sides. That, and it’s a square.
The associations related to its four sides associate the square with the directions (North, East, South, and West), seasons (Winter, Spring, Summer, Fall), and elements (earth, water, air, and fire).
In either 2- or 3-dimensional representation, a square (or cube) is a sturdy shape. It is the shape of a building, foundation, base, and can even represent a home.
One of the more abstract meanings behind the square is that of balance. The inability to have a true 2-sided shape leaves a void for any sort of truly symmetrical balance in shape theory. The square is the first polygonal shape to have an even number of sides, so it’s the shape most associated with stable balance. (Yes, a triangle can represent balance, but more so in the zen state-of-mind way.)
While I don’t believe this to be a truly common association with the square shape, one of the more interesting associations I have heard with the shape is the relationships between the human, the divine, the demonic, and the angelic. That’s it. I just think it’s interesting.
THE STAR… AND THE PENTAGRAM
Speaking of the demonic... Many Christians associate the upside-down pentagram (five-pointed star) with Christianity’s great antagonist, Satan. This association actually has nothing to do with Christianity, but rather Celtic religions, which viewed the pentagram’s five points as a representative of the spirit and the four elements: earth, water, air, and fire. The top point represents the spirit, being over the material elements. The pentagon in the middle represents the mind, love, or will, depending on the context and origin. Ironically, the pentagram was consistently used as a means of thwarting evil and bad luck; thus representing protection and good luck. The upside down pentagram represented the spirit’s subservience to material things, and was used to remind people to mind their spirit, and not allow it to be buried or stifled by earthly matters.
More ‘mainstream’ uses of the star shape include that of fortune, luck, and fame.
The shape came to be associated with fortune and luck with the whole ‘wish upon a star’ concept. The earliest and best explanation as to why people do this dates back to the early 2nd century, when astronomer Ptolemy wrote that falling stars were a result of the gods looking down at humans on Earth. Presumably, they had to open the heavens a little to peer down at us, and a star would fall out. People would then make a wish because they thought that, at that moment, the gods were paying attention to humans, so their wish was more likely to come true. People still wish upon a falling star today.
Stars later came to represent fame, as well. This was likely a logical extension of the luck and fortune granted by stars, considering how ‘lucky’ one must be to become famous. This is directly reflected in the Hollywood Walk of Fame, where celebrities names are indefinitely featured within star shapes, right over circular, gold medallions representing the industry that earned them their star. What might be the reasoning behind using gold circles in this context?
TO BE CONTINUED…
Obviously there are a lot more shapes than what is covered here. Likewise, there is a lot more to consider when designing logos, such as corners, angles, textures, etc. What is provided here is meant to be a foundation to stimulate your thought process in how you think about logos and emblems you see and/or are in the process of designing. This foundation, combined with color theory, is enough to dissect almost any logo or emblem.
IT IS WHAT IT IS?
While I do believe that most of us gravitate towards colors and shapes that reflect ourselves in some way, shape, or form, it’s hard not to be skeptical whenever someone says that everything has meaning. I know it to be true that everything has the potential for meaning, but I also certainly know that many things are created by designers who are blissfully unaware of what those colors and shapes ‘represent’. (Likewise, if the person on the receiving end of those symbols, logos, emblems, etc, isn’t versed or educated to a certain degree, then it’s totally possible that the subconscious meaning behind the colors and/or shapes used will be compromised, if not rendered null.)
With that in mind, I think it’s perfectly fair to say that you should take into consideration the possibility that the thing that you are analyzing doesn’t have any deeper meaning than the fact that the designer liked that color combination, or perhaps it was simply ‘on brand’. Sometimes it just is what it is.