I approached this project as a designer, finding a system of shapes that could be used as building blocks to ensure consistency in form as well as find a common rule set for how human beings have built symbols for thousands of years. While there are more complex symbols used across cultures , their appearance is based on an architecture that is found worldwide.
Essentially all of western symbols can be built using a few shapes:
Combining a dot, horizontal line, vertical line, triangle, directional arrow, circle, and spiral can create a variety of distinct shapes each with individual meaning.
For example take the Clog Almanac symbols for the seasons.
Two spirals growing from the top of a circle. Circles traditionally represent earth, eternity, god, an eye, an unborn child. With spirals having a very organic hand-drawn aspect to them represent life, elements, and movement. Combining the two shapes create a symbol of new life, growth, and a rising from the earth – an embrace of warmth and the shedding of shelter by not having a strict horizontal line.
A full sprouting of the previous shape, a clear evolution of the spring symbol and a sense that life is in full force. A distinct open bowl shape creates an welcoming aspect, inviting the sun to fill its space. The spirals are featured in this but less so, as if life is taking its course and needs little assistance from humans. The upward motion of this piece, like Spring, promotes growth.
A more figurative symbol that immediately reminds the viewer of a tree with its colorful leaves falling to earth. The downward directional vertical line in the middle represents seeds falling from the tree, with the bisecting horizontal line indicating the seed penetrating the earth. A downward enclosed shape is created by the half circle and spiral elements creating outward motion, providing a secure shelter for the coming winter.
Three linear shapes and a grouping of dots tell the story of winter in a succinct and easy to understand way. The hibernation, saving of seeds and indoor quality to this sign are created by its rigid structure and inorganic lines. The bottom is left open to show that this structure is freestanding, and the downward motion coupled with the capped top imply rest.
Now take this for example: Autumn contrasted with Saturn . Saturn is the god of triumph, harvest and plant growth, the Roman equivalent to the Greek god Chronos (from who’s symbol this one derives). Because for many years Saturn was the farthest known planet with the longest orbit (about 29 years), human lifespan would be measured there in 2-3 rotations. As a result, the symbol is also associated with death and the Reaper. The common shapes, the half circle with ending spiral, linear line and cross are still present but represented differently. We can see the parallels between the meaning of autumn and saturn: both dealing with the passing of time, harvest, a triumph of ones hard work of the year paying off.
Ideograms are still used today, often representing actions a user can take in an application, or used as way finding and navigation both offline and online. Most are used in a specific industry (pdf warning) and generally understood amongst peer groups, but often times ideograms have penetrated mass culture in the form of logomarks – often using systems of design to speak to a specific nature of the company it is required to represent. The most descriptive logomarks are based in a fundamental aspect the company embodies or its product can do. A great resource to understand the decisions behind elements making up a logo is Brand New.
Often times a company’s symbol has grown so strong and has created a life of its own so that it can be simplified to a basic geometric shape.
The open circle form makes this shape accepting, something that has inward motion that is exaggerated with the horizontal rule created to the right. Regardless of color, scale, or representation it communicates the friendly nature that Google has come to embody. It is easily drawn by anyone, and is built by modifying two shapes of our original shapes:
The intention of this site is to inform designers of the meaning behind shapes, symbols and shed light on ideograms to create a more communicative visual language especially on the internet – where common symbols have no basis in human history.
Due to the ancient and distributed nature of the symbols featured on the site, they are 100% free for any kind of use and the viewer is encouraged to manipulate the shapes to suit their need whether it’s a basis for a logo design or a evolution of the sign itself. Symbols only carry life and meaning when they are in our collective imagination.