CalArts: Funds. of Graphic Design-W3: 3.3 Marks, Icons, and Symbols

In this video, we’re going to look at the difference between marks, icons, and symbols.


And we’ve really been looking at marks so far. We’ve been looking at graphic shapes.

So these are the kind of shapes that are quite familiar from the last video where we’ve looked at circle, square, triangle. 
We’ve looked at solid forms, we’ve looked at linear forms.

And these are the kinda marks that graphic designers use a lot as elements in their compositions and with their graphic form.

And these can be geometric and straight. They can be much more abstract and loose, and organic even, but they’re still graphic marks.

And basically graphic marks are devoid [To empty out; to remove] of meaning.

So they don’t really hold any connotation, so all they hold is denotation.

So they become the equivalent of denotative graphic form, if you like.

So in other words, circle, square, triangle equals exactly circle, square,triangle.

So when the viewer tries to read these forms all they can read into them is just what the form is itself.

Icons and symbols

Icons and symbols work in a slightly different way.

Both icons and the symbols represent other things.

So an icon you can see here is generally a pictorial representation of something.

Where as a symbol often represents something more abstract, an idea or a construct.

So here you can see that they both have simplified form and that’s what they have in common. 
And that’s why people sometimes get confused between the two.

But basically an icon

  • is pictorial.
  • It represents actual things.
  • It’s easy to read.

Whereas a symbol,

  • non pictorial,
  • represents ideas or products,
  • and it has to be learned. In other words it’s coded
    You can’t look at it and figure it out, you actually have to be told what it means, what it represents, in order to figure it out.

So while both icons and symbols can be built from the kind of simplified graphic forms that we’ve been looking at, 
symbols are perhaps the most interesting to look at.

Because they can have a pure abstract form because they’re non pictorial.
They just represent an idea and the representation of that idea can take an abstract form.

So for instance if we look at these four symbols and think about how they might be read what they’re associated meaning might be, certainly within a US culture, they would read quite differently.

They’d have quite different concepts attached to them, even though they’re actually quite similar forms.

So if we read from left to right,

  • they would read as being about Christianity,
  • the red cross perhaps representing the hospital,
  • the green cross a pharmacy
  • and the black X, representing something being wrong.

What this demonstrates is that even with a very, very simple forms and very rudimentary [basic, elemental, initial] tools.

The designer has an incredible control over the meaning of something, over the meaning of an image or mark.

So, graphic elements can be really, really powerful, even in their simplest forms.