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Learn about symbols and their meanings

Every single day we see a lot of symbols around us-  logos of brands, road signs, on our gadgets etc but do really know on which category they fall in? You may have come across a lot of words like monogram, logo, phonograph, ideogram but do you really know the difference between all these?

If you don’t then no need to feel sad because you are at a right place to learn about them. In this short article we have discussed about various symbols and their meanings.

1. Pictograms 

 A pictogram is an image that represents an object. Pictograms are useful for conveying information through a common “visual language” able to be understood regardless of one’s native language or degree of literacy. So that means that anyone in the world familiar with a drinking fountain should recognize the pictogram above.

This pictogram on left is part of an entire system of signage symbols developed by the United States Department of Transportation to help manage the flow of large numbers of people through transportation hubs. To encourage their adoption world-wide the symbols were made available for free. The American Institute of Graphic Arts played a pivotal role in the design and development of these symbols.


Chinese is composed entirely of pictograms, a system of writing used by more than any other in the world. (About 1 billion Chinese speakers compared to 350 million English speakers). To be literate in Chinese requires knowledge of several thousand of the over 80,000 Chinese pictograms — although about 3,500 are most commonly used. The pictogram above is Chinese for world peace.

During the 2008 Olympics in China the event signage employed pictographs that echoed the style of Chinese language pictographs.



 2. Rebus

The rebus is a pictorial image that represents a spoken sound. Today the rebus is mostly used for amusement however it was a critical link in the development of the phonetic alphabet starting in Egyptian hieroglyphics. (See the “Development of Handwriting” on this site).
a famous rebus for IBM by Paul Randan American graphic designer renown for his corporate identity work from 1960—1980.


3. Phonogram

The below image is Milton Glaser’s ubiquitous rebus “I Love New York” It is a combination of a rebus and a phonogram. A phonogram is a symbol (letter) that represents a spoken sound.



4. Ideogram

An ideogram is a character or symbol representing a complete idea or concept. On left, an ideogram demonstrates the perils of tipping a vending machine. (Image from Warning by Nicole Recchia)




5. Trademarks | Brands

During the Middle Ages European trade guilds began using marks to identify the origin and content of their products. The term “hallmark” comes from the identification marks that metal artisans stamped into metal when exhibiting wares in the guild hall in London. In the image the anchor refers to the town where the product was made, the lion signifies the type of metal (sterling silver) and the letter B is a date letter that refers to the year the item was marked. (Image source)

The terms ear mark and branding have their origins in the practice of farmers marking ownership on their animals. When herds ranged freely, intermingling with others in common pastures, these permanent marks were imperative. Ear marks are cuts or holes punched into ears; branding is a scar burned into the skin.


6. Logotype or Logo?

Technically the term logotype means a symbol comprised entirely of typography. The Coca-Cola symbol is an example of a purely typographic logotype.
Frequently the term logo is used interchangeably with symbol. The symbol below is from the Wiener Werstätte, or Vienna Workshops, formed in Austria in 1903. The workshops were a co-operative of artisans and artists united in their goal of making products that merged pure and applied arts.


7. Printer’s Devices 

Printer’s devices (symbols) were used to identify the printer or publisher of a book. Many early printers used the combination of the orb and the cross, a signifier of the earth and Christianity. The mark on the left is a version of the orb and cross by Joannes de Colonia of Venice, 1481.

On the above right is a contemporary printer’s mark by Paul Moxon for his Fameorshame press. He explains the myriad of reasons for the mark, “TheFameorshame mark is based on the orb and four, a traditional sign used by some early printers. A related sign the orb and cross—literally the earth surmounted by the cross—is also the alchemical symbol for antimony, an ingredient in type metal. Long before the development of printing, the 4 had been a mark of merchants to identify their wares. Several authorities, including the great lettering artist Rudolph Koch also associate the 4 with Hermes, the god of scribes, tradesmen, and travelers. Additionally, in The Book of Signs Koch provides an illustration of a 4 being represented in a medieval monogram for the Christian name Paul.
Quote and image source



8. Monogram

Greek for “single line.” In early European kingdoms illiterate monarchs signed documents with custom monograms. Today a designer’s monogram can increase the status to an everyday object and add value to the price.



9. Coat of Arms & Family Crest

The origin of “a coat of arms” came from the symbols displayed on the crest of a helmet or metal chest armor to help identify soldiers in battle or jousting matches. Eventually the images were moved off of the helmet and chest plate and onto banners, dinnerware, etc. The coat of arms, however, often retained the helmet reference as part of the composition (see above where the goat stands). Now the coat-of-arms appears on items ranging from automobiles to 50cent’s web site, or on any application that wishes to imply regal lineage or status.


We hope this article would have cleared all your doubts about various symbols and what is the real name of different symbols.


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