Symbology - The Study of Signs and Symbols

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SYMBOLOGY - Signs and Symbols

© Dixie Allan

Symbolism has been a part of human culture since artistic expression first began. The Paleolithic Age around 18,000 BC, has given us hundreds of examples in the form of cave paintings. The paintings illustrate how early symbolism became important not only for artistic expression but for human communication.

Signs and Symbols are just as important today as they were in 18,000 BC. Granted, today we do have many, many more ways to communicate but an intricate part of our communication has to do with signs and symbols.

Symbology is defined in most dictionaries as the study or interpretation of symbols and signs. It has been called by many as the silent language - seen but never heard.

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The Difference Between A Sign and A Symbol


A sign stands for something and causes the observer to connect and deduce. Its form is arbitrary and it simply has to be learned. Signs point to something or instruct someone about something. Signs are physical things. Some common signs include stop signs and other street signs as well as signs in public places such as bus stations, malls and airports.>


In contrast to a physical sign, symbols represents something else by association, resemblance or convention... something visible representing something invisible. For example, the well-known image of a dove symbolizes peace, rather than just depicting the bird itself. Common symbols that are not considered signs include a dove to represent peace, a cross to represent Christianity or even punctuation marks such as the question mark or the exclamation mark.

Sometimes the words sign and symbol are used as synonyms. In these cases, the thing referred to is something that "stands in" for something else... they are both used abstractly. For instance, a handshake could be referred to either as sign of peace or a symbol of peace. In both cases the word does not refer to the action literally, but rather abstractly. It is best to use sign to refer to a physical object and symbol to refer to an abstract representation.

Many books have been written about signs and symbols and a large number of those books are in dictionary format. They illustrate the sign or symbol and then give a brief description of the meaning and history of that particular symbol. The books are an excellent reference for anyone working in the communication field, advertising or desktop publishing. They are used very often by artists

Learn what different graphic symbols represent and how to choose and use symbols, icons, and other graphic representations effectively.

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How Signs and Symbols Relate to Clip Art

Signs and Symbols have been an important category in clip art for a long time. They often represent an idea or quality, for example the color white usually stands for purity, the sun symbolizes warmth and power and the lion makes us think of courage. Because works of art don't usually include words, symbols are used in order to tell the viewer a message or even a story.

Graphic design is a creative process that combines art and technology to communicate ideas. The designer works with a variety of communication tools in order to convey a message from a client to a particular audience.

Suppose you want to announce or sell something, amuse or persuade someone, explain a complicated system or demonstrate a process. In other words, you have a message you want to communicate. How do you get that message across? You could tell people one by one or broadcast by radio or loudspeaker. That's verbal communication. But if you use any visual medium at all-if you make a poster, type a letter, create a newsletter or even make a computer printout, you are using a form of visual communication called graphic design.

Graphic designers work with drawn, painted, photographed, or computer-generated images, signs and symbols. Designers create, choose and organize these elements- images, signs or symbols, type and the so-called “white space” around them-to communicate a message. Graphic design is a part of your daily life. From humble things like gum wrappers to huge things like billboards to the T-shirt you're wearing, graphic design informs, persuades, organizes, stimulates, locates, identifies, attracts attention and provides pleasure.

You may be thinking at the point, "but I'm not a graphic designer" - that may be true but if you are using clip art to communicate a message or to emphasize the meaning of a greeting card, then you are doing what graphic designers do every day of their life!

By becoming more familiar with the meanings of signs and symbols, final projects will be more effective, readers will be drawn to your projects because in the end, we homo sapiens love signs and symbols!

One thing is clear. The use of symbols in daily human life is as strong now as it was many generations ago. As an example, there are even international laundry care symbols. Symbolism transcends cultural boundaries, encourages communication and cooperation, and will continue to evolve along with us.