WhatsThePoint? blog.

On the Importance of Symbols

The study of semiotics is one which, personally, greatly interests me. Semiology (or semiotics) is the study of signs or symbols relating to meaning and language. Basically it's studying the relationship between an object and it's meaning to us, how we intrepret these objects, whether it be through likeness, designation, through an allegory, metaphor, analogy or everday communication.

Some symbols we have accepted commonly and some have very different, individualistic perceptions. Let's take a very simple and abstract example, this shape: ▲

A triangle which is pointing up. That immedietely springs to mind several different and common interpretations: for one it's pointing up, therefor can represent hierarchy or ascension. Some might see this and remember studying mathematics at school, it might serve as a symbol for maths or science. If we divide the symbol into two halves, the first half might signify ascension, going up, the second half could then be intrepreted as descending, going down. But there we go into western interpretation, because we read from left to right and from up to down.

That one simple example can harness several different interpretations, it can mean so many things, depending where we are, what we do and who we are. And it's because of that reason that symbols are so very important.


Freud was the first psychologist to point out this immense variability between symbols, depending on the human interpreting them. It's very surprising how something very abstract or very insignificant to you might be an immensely important sign or symbol to someone else, The importance of these symbols is that they carry a huge weight to you personally, on several levels. Meaning, understanding and relationship to the world; all these things are intertwined in one single element, whatever that element may be. From animals to objects, abstract shapes or realistic ones.

Because of this multi-layered meaning, symbols differ greatly from logos. A logo, taken out of context, will always refer back to it's original meaning. If you take the Facebook logo away from the website and put it on a wall as a graffiti, in a book or even if you tattoo on yourself, it will always mean the social media website Facebook. But if you take a symbol such as a snake (for example) into different contexts, it changes its' meaning depending on where it's shown. On a hospital it means health, deriving medicine from poison, if you took it to the people of Hopi in North America, it meant fertility and nature, in the Bible it's represented as a creature baring hidden knowledge, tempting Eve to the apple, and so on and so on.

So why should you care about symbols?

Because they represent something very human about us. Their meaning depends on us individually and collectively. Their greater meaning comes from history, stories, myths and legends, but also from us, whatever meaning we put on them. They connect us to our predecesors in a very profound way, giving us a deeper understanding of their perception of the world and thus give us a grounding to understand where we came from, as a species. But we can take those same symbols and evolve them into something different. That meaning behind them is the story of humanity. To understand ourselves fully, we also must understand our symbolic language.