This particular subject might seem off theme, but nowadays people are bombarded by symbolism and imagery thus, as a designer, you need to be aware of both successful and unsuccessful use of symbolism.
No matter if you design an icon, a logo or even a t-shirt graphic there is a right and a wrong way to do it. The whole point of symbolism is that it sends a specific message and saves a lot of space – you might see a stick figure in a dress and you don’t need an explanation like “For female waste discharge”.
Although the original construct/meaning of the following symbols got lost in history people kept using them anyway.
I. The peace sign is a sad stick man
The peace sign is one of the most hope inspiring and powerful symbols on the planet, despite its old association with hippies. Looking at it you get a feeling of hope, grandiosity and conviction, this might be because of its simple geometric shapes that inspires a primal part of our brain.
Originally, the symbol was created by a British graphic designer, Gerald Holtom, it represented the image of a man collapsed in despair. The sign was designed in 1985 for use in protests against nuclear weapons.
“I drew myself: the representative of an individual in despair, with hands palm outstretched outwards and downwards in the manner of Goya’s peasant before the firing squad”
The symbol was also created with a double entendre, the second one being two superimposed semaphore letters: N and D, standing for “Nuclear Disarment”
However, we forgot that the primary image that Holton designed was meant to be a “human in despair.” Thus, the peace sign is actually a representation of a human who lost all hope in a mad world, stretching his arms downward in desperation and defeat.
II. The Jesus fish is actually a vagina
Nowadays you can find this symbol in its natural habitat – car bumpers and windshields. The ichthys, know to us as the Jesus fish, dates back to ancient times when Christianity was still a sect and it’s the second most know for believers and the world after the cross.
Another name the symbol had BC was vesica pisces (meaning vessel of the fish) and it was used to represent fertility goddesses from Atargatis (Syrian), Aphrodite/Venus to the pagan Great Mother. Basically, where ever you would encounter this symbol in pre-Christian times it was almost certainly a metaphor for vagina.
According to many researchers, the symbol was adopted by Christianity on the fact that is was so common and spread across the world, however Christianity later censored the original meaning and rebranded it according to their dogma.
III. The Heart symbol is about birth control (and other)
The heart symbol is one of the most widespread on the planet, everything from candy to cards to tattoos, although it looks nothing like a heart.
Tracing this symbol back as far as we can, we stumble upon a coin from the roman era:
But the significance of the symbol at that time might catch you by surprise. It’s a seedpod from the silphium plant, a very prized herb at the time for its birth control capabilities. So prized in fact, that it was used to extinction.
However, while it still existed, imagery of this pod with seeds was widespread across the Roman Empire to the point that it appeared on theirs coins, even the American dollar has a nod to the old empire printed on it.
With all this, historians are not 100% certain that this was the origin on the heart symbol. The Romans did link the symbol to a bodily organ, however it was not the heart they were thinking about, just flip it upside-down:
That’s right that heart shaped chocolate you bought your mom or your girlfriend was actually a representation of a male umm… you know “tea set”
If there’s one thing you can take away from this article is that, whatever symbols you are designing, the original meaning needs to stand out and be specific and never, and we do mean never, turn it upside down and have it look like testicles.