Symbolism & Iconography


01 Aug 2017

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The use of symbols and icons predates human spoken and written languages. In his book, Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, Scott McCloud (1993) defines an icon as "any image used to represent a person, place, thing, or idea." While a symbol is an "image we use to represent concepts, ideas, and philosophies" (p. 27).  He also defines "Icons of the practical realm" as "icons of language, science, and communication" (McCloud, 1993, p. 27). Each of these types of icons have varying degrees of meanings. A representational icon's meaning is fluid and varies depending on the degree of realism. The second being non-pictorial icons, or as Scott McCloud calls them "icons of the practical realm" have a fixed and absolute meaning. Simply, their meaning does not change with their appearance such examples include the peace sign or the number 5. Finally, there are completely abstract icons. The most common being words. Words do not represent a pictorial meaning at all.

Icons that have a fixed or absolute meaning are "icons of the practical realm" as McCloud states. These are such things as letters (A), numbers (5), punctuation (!), music notes (♪), and mathematical symbols like pi (Ï€). No matter how one writes or represents this icon the meaning stays the same. To visit the beginning, one would have to go back to 3300 BCE. This is the believed to be the beginning of Egyptian hieroglyphs (, 2007). Many people believe that hieroglyphs are representational icons, in that they represent what they depict. This is not the case as it has been discovered that hieroglyphs are interpreted as sounds, much like our alphabet. For example, three birds in a row was not interpreted as birds instead it was interpreted as the sound "baíu" (McCloud, 1993, p. 12). Most of us have been taught the alphabet in grade school and that each letter represents at least one sound. No matter how one writes or types a letter, it's meaning does not change. For example, you can still read this sentence even though every word is in a different font. Some types of these icons have become pretty much universal with the advent of the digital world.

Much like every word in this research paper they are completely abstract. None of these words visually represent what they mean. For example, if you read the word "cat" it does not represent the furry four-legged pets we know and love.

A representational icon's meaning is fluid and varies depending on the degree of realism. The best example, and the one Scott McCloud utilizes, is the human face (See visual example on the next page). In this example a photograph would be an icon that most represents real life. The next step down would be a realistic drawing of that face. 'There are many things that set these apart from actual faces - They're smaller, flatter, less detailed, they don't move. They lack color - but as pictorial icons go, they are pretty "realistic"' (McCloud, 1993, p. 28). The third step is more abstract and looks close to the style found in most adventure comics. Continuing to simplify it we get to a face made from just lines and shapes, it looks more like a cartoon. Finally, we have a circle with two dots for eyes and a line for a mouth.

The advantage to stripping down the realism is the universality of the imagery. The simpler it is the more people it could describe. Using the previous example, the picture can only describe one person while the realistic drawing could describe a few. The adventure style may represent thousands of people while the cartoon version could describe millions of people. Finally, the two dots and the line within a circle represents nearly all people. This graphic represents many gradients from complex to simple, realistic to iconic, objective to subjective, and specific to universal (McCloud, 1993, p. 46). However, this is just one side of an entire spectrum.

McCloud (1993) states that the pictorial side is the received side where "we need no formal education to "get the message." The message is instantaneous" (p. 49). The other side is perceived, as the spectrum becomes even more abstract it crosses from the representational icon to the completely abstract icon. This "writing being perceived information. It takes time and specialized knowledge to decode abstract symbols of language" (McCloud, 1993, p. 49). This creates an entire spectrum shown on the next page. McCloud (1993) states that "when pictures are more abstracted from "reality," they require greater levels of perception, more like words. When words are bolder, more direct, they require lower levels of perception and are received faster, more like pictures" (p. 49).

In his book, How to Design Logos, Symbols & Icons, Gregory Thomas (2000) says that the oldest ideograph symbols are the circle, cross, triangle, and the square (p. 9-10). Circles were used to signify the endlessness of the universe, eternity, or God. These symbols were found on pre-Columbian caves. Open circles may represent openings such as eyes or a mouth. One with a dot in the center may represent the sun and this has been used in every cultural sphere on earth before inter-civilization communication (Thomas, 2000, p. 9). The cross predates Christianity and was one of the earliest signs traced back to the Neolithic Age. Now commonly used to signify Christianity. "The triangle was symbolic due to its three even sides, used to define a multiple of triads such as birth, life and death or body, soul, and spirit" (Thomas, 2000, p. 9-10). Opposite the circle, the square signifies matter, earth, restraint, solidarity, order, and safety (Thomas, 2000, p. 10).

Present day a few people have come together to create standards. Seeing that everyone is now connected through the internet and many people travel throughout the world a need for a standard for symbols and signs arose. Out of this need the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) was created. Its main goal is "to raise public awareness of ISO graphical symbols which transmit safety messages and other important information without creating language barriers" (International Organization for Standardization, 2013). With this standardization, an individual would be able to travel anywhere, even where one may not know the language, and they would still be able to understand basic signs like no smoking, parking, or restroom.

With the advent of the digital era there was need for more standardization. This first came in the form of the American Standard Code for Information Interexchange (ASCII) which is a standard that assigns letters, numbers, and other characters within the 256 slots available in 8-bit code (Computer Hope, n.d.). Slots 0-31 were non-printable codes, 32-127 are considered Lower ASCII and this contains the older American systems. Then there is the Higher ASCII, codes 128-255 which is programable and is based on the language of your operating system, the program currently being used, or for foreign letters (Computer Hope, n.d.). As one may have guessed this system became very limiting very fast as the internet became an international tool and this system only has 256 character slots.

Thus, a new system was established. This new system is the Unicode Standard developed by the Unicode Consortium (, 2015). The earliest updated version was released June of 2016, Unicode 9.0 sports a total of 1,114,112 code points (the same as a 'slot' in ASCII) with only 267,819 code points being used (BabelStone, 2016). This gives more than enough room to accommodate language variances including a multitude of oriental symbols and everyone's favorite: the emoji.

First, a quick clarification on the difference between emojis and emoticons. Emojis are images and symbols that are rendered on the device, for example "🙂", while emoticons are simple expressions and faces created with standard keyboard characters for example ":-)". Originating in Japan, emojis were developed in 1999 by Shigetaka Kurita, an employee of NTT DoCoMo. They were the biggest mobile-phone operator in Japan and were under increasing pressure to support a new obsession among the Japanese people, with images. Mr. Kurita, also known as Mr. Emoji, realized that digital communication robbed people of the ability to communicate emotion (Schenker, 2016). The name emoji originated from "picture" (e) and "character" (moji). This then became a part of the Shift JIS Japanese character encoding scheme. It wasn't until Apple incorporated the emoji that it became globally popular. However, in 2007 they incorporated an emoji keyboard into their mobile operating system (iOS) to be able to sell iPhones to Japanese customers, but hid this feature on iPhones sold everywhere else. People outside of Japan soon discovered this and they found that they could unlock the emoji keyboard by downloading a Japanese language app, and emojis spread like wildfire (Schenker, 2016). It wasn't until 2011 that Apple officially supported emojis internationally with the release of iOS 5.

To make this trend a reality emoji character sets were incorporated into Unicode in 2010. Therefore, no matter what operating system is sending or receiving an emoji everyone can still view them because of the great standardization in digital communication. With a clear definition of emojis versus emoticons one may wonder what the father of the emoticon thinks about emojis. In an interview with the UK's Independent, Scott Fahlman, the Carnegie Mellon University professor who invented the emoticon, said "I think they are ugly, and they ruin the challenge of trying to come up with a clever way to express emotions using standard keyboard characters. But perhaps that's just because I invented the other kind" (Bignell, 2012). Today we have 1,851 different emojis and they have become more multi-cultural, racially diverse, and gender diverse. As a relatively recent development it has already come a far way and has a bright future ahead of it.

While words are abstract icons, the recent revolution of emojis brings rise to the use of a unified standard for non-representational icons. "Icons demand our participation to make them work. There is no life [in an icon] except that which you give to it. It's been over [forty-four] years since McLuhan first observed that people … didn't want goals so much as they wanted roles! And that's what visual iconography is all about" (McCloud, 1993, p. 59).


BabelStone. (2016, June 22). How many Unicode charachters are there? Retrieved from

Bignell, P. (2012, September 8). Happy 30th birthday emoticon! :-}. Retrieved from

Computer Hope. (n.d.). Retrieved from ASCII: (2007, January). An Explanation of Hieroglyphics. Retrieved from International World History Project:

International Organization for Standardization. (2013, January). The international language of ISO graphical symbols. Retrieved from

McCloud, S. (1993). Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.

Schenker, M. (2016, October 11). The suprising history of emojis. Retrieved from

Thomas, G. (2000). How to Design, Logos, Symbols & Icons. Cincinnati: How Design Books. (2015, December 1). What is Unicode? Retrieved from


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