Trends — Culture • Lifestyle • Future

The Signs of Immortality

The history of logos is really the history of symbols: how humans have assembled simple lines and basic shapes, evolving them to communicate concepts and meaning.

The earliest known man-made symbols date from around 100,000 years ago, when ancient humans started etching lines and hashtag patterns onto red rocks in a South African cave. Whether these lines communicate meaning or served merely as decoration, however, remains lost in time.

Meaning, however, could be clearly discerned once the symbols that our ancestors carved on stones, painted on cave walls and inscribed into animal bone fragments started to take on distinctive and repetitive forms derived from nature from around 50,000 years ago. 

Our forebears have bequeathed us with a lexicon of pictograms that depict the sun, moon, horizon, ocean and so on.

Today, some of our most cutting-edge companies are represented by logos derived from nature: Apple, Twitter's blue bird, and Amazon's smile are three that readily come to mind, and they are linked to their respective ideas of rational thought, mass communication, and positive expression. 

These notions may appear universal, transcending language and time. Yet, many other symbols - especially those of a more graphic origin - take on different and even conflicting meanings across cultures. 

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The swastika has been in use for at least 7,000 years, and originated in the Eurasia region. Researchers believe the design was a symbol of the sun travelling across the sky. It may have originally been used as a sign of wellbeing and kinship.

Swastikas have strong links to faith and religion: examples have been discovered in the tombs of ancient Christians and in the Cathedral of Cordoba. 

In Buddhism, the swastika signifies the footsteps of Buddha. In India, it represents the sun god and is used as a sign of welcome at weddings and on the doors of shops.

The Swastika is even used in Vedic Mathematics, as a representation of a cube of four dimensions symbolising the fourth state of consciousness: the fourth state of being after dreaming, sleeping and waking. 

Since the 1940s, Hitler's appropriation of it as a political icon has regrettably turned general public opinion against displays of the symbol.

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Indeed, opinions and symbolism change over time, and also vary across cultures. The mythical dragon, for example, represents heavenly power in Asian culture - it is a symbol of the Emperor in feudal China - and it also stands for strength, knowledge and righteousness. Whereas in Christian and Western traditions, dragons are typically presented as evil beasts to be slayed so that goodness may prevail.

Symbols thus illustrate the differences between cultures. While the Western narrative espouses the triumph of good over evil, in Chinese philosophy, the core concept of Yinyang and its accompanying taijitu symbol illustrates a dynamic balance between opposite but interconnected forces: light and dark, day and night, female and male, and good and evil.

The Yinyang symbol communicates the abstract concept of duality from which a coherent worldview arises. 

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In contemporary times, icons have become shorthand for various functions. They are embedded in everyday encounters, from wayfinding and identification signage to the control panels of household appliances, to onscreen icons.

They transcend language, being understood universally. Charmingly, some have themselves become legacy symbols, such as the "save" function as depicted by a floppy disk, or the "call" button by an analog handset. 

Symbols with longevity are really the ones that illustrate universal concepts: they signify communion, danger, safety, life or death. The lexicon of symbols we have inherited contain inherent meaning that we can mine when creating new logos. 

The most successful symbols and logos have evolved to assume the appeal of talismans - icons that widely evoke sensations of comfort and assurance.

Brands want distinctive yet simple icons that reflect their values.

When designers draw from a toolbox of lines, shapes, colours, and pictograms in crafting new icons, they are really drawing from a system of coded concepts, negotiating expressions of meaning passed down through time, and burnishing their immortality.