Brand Identity Essentials

Design principles for building world-class brands

Brand symbols

From the flags of nations, to religious icons, to the classical elements (earth, water, air, fire, and ether) of ancient philosophies, symbols communicate big ideas in small packages. Designers inherently recognize the power of symbols. As the world gets smaller and more interconnected, we need to be increasingly mindful where that power comes from.


We live in a world of complex symbology, where symbols with deep cultural roots are modified, editorialized, and juxtaposed to create ever-new meaning. Graphic designers often serve as interpreters (or reinterpreters) of cultural symbols through graphic identities.

It’s impossible to divorce symbols from cultures. That’s why the same organization is known as the Red Cross Society in one part of the world and the Red Crescent Society in another. Launching a brand that spans cultures and relies on symbols requires research and diligence to ensure that the symbols have similar meaning in different parts of the world. Symbols inspired by nature present less risk because they are so universal.

Symbol languages from the worlds of technology, law, gaming, sports, or elsewhere might layer meaning onto a brand by way of a graphic identity that builds upon a symbol from one of these subcultures.


Many identity programs integrate a system of symbols, drawing on the graphic identity as a foundation or touchstone for a symbol vocabulary. Extending a mark in this way adds to the brand meaning with a specific function.

In a corporate literature system or website, one symbol might suggest sales collateral while another suggests training materials. At the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, this icon might represent ski jumping, that one, snowboarding.

Once learned, a system of pictograms can make the reading of washing functions or wayfinding systems more efficient.

Symbols should be clear, but often they assume a level of user learning. Provided you use them consistently, your symbol vocabulary will become familiar to your audience and immediate recall will increase. In the U.S., drivers don’t think twice about the meaning of a white H on a blue rectangular sign (hospital) or a black X on a yellow circle (railroad crossing). A collection of consistently applied symbols can create a unique, recognizable graphic language for a brand.


The best brands tend to symbolize something in a culture beyond the specific, pragmatic offer. In rare cases, brands themselves have risen to the level of becoming cultural icons.

When people buy bags prominently displaying the logo of a shoe company, get a tattoo of a computer company logo, or write a song about a car company, you know these brands symbolize something beyond shoes, computers, or cars. When a brand authentically connects itself to an idea that resonates with audiences—health, education, community, etc.—the brand symbolizes more than a business value proposition. Brands that are as much about belonging as they are about buying tend to build the greatest value over time.

Some brands aim to become symbols, inspiring their customers to join the club as well as use their product.


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