Symbols have been all the rage lately, haven't they? A symbol of a woman will be on the $10 bill. A symbol of the Confederacy will not be flying in South Carolina. (Or will it? I can't keep up.) A symbol of the rainbow has taken over facebook profiles pictures. And soon the symbol of America will be affixed to nearly every home. With all of this talk about symbols, it's good to know that everyone has a firm grasp on what symbols are and are not. Oh, wait—they don't. Not to worry, I am here to help. Let's talk about what symbols are, how they are good/bad, how to use them for business and maybe get just a little bit political.
What Symbols Are
A very basic definition of a symbol is: something used to represent something else. By definition, the something is not the something that it represents. A represents B, but A is not B. This seems like a painfully obvious truism, but I think that both points are often missed. Perhaps an illustration will be helpful.
Imagine there is a frightfully deep hole in my yard. It is so deep that it is dangerous. To help my guests avoid the danger, I put up a sign that reads "Deep Hole." The sign acts as a symbol. It represents the deep hole. The sign is not the hole itself. With me so far?
Imagine further that my friend comes over, sees the sign but falls into the deep hole nonetheless spraining her angle very badly. She is out of commission for several weeks and, for the rest of her life, has ghost pains every time she sees my sign or any other sign that says, "Deep Hole."
Hating the sign and the pain it causes her, she demands that I remove the sign. She experiences the problem of mistaking the sign for the hole itself. Even if I remove the sign, the deep hole is still there, and it is still dangerous. So, I refuse and call her on her fallacy.
Yet, it would seem that I have already made the mistake of forgetting that the sign does represent the hole, and the hole is a problem.
When dealing with symbols we must keep both of these realities in mind. A is not B, but it does represent it.
How Symbols are Good/Bad
The above section has already taken up more space than I intended, so I will look at just one aspect of what makes symbols good/bad and that is communication.
Symbols are good because they communicate so much.
With just one image, a symbol communicates a world of thoughts and feelings. The old adage is that "A picture paints a thousand words," and that is quite often the truth. Think of any one of the symbols mentioned at the beginning of this article. They each represent and communicate vast amounts with very little. They communicate where we are or where we've been or where we're going with just a snapshot. Not only this, but they do so in evocative ways. Symbols can be powerful communication tools.
Symbols are bad because they communicate so poorly.
The problem with symbols, of course, is that they don't always communicate the same thing that they express. Putting a woman on a $10 is meant to express the value of women, yet to many it communicates the devaluing (after all, the push was for the $20 bill). Flying the rebel flag was meant to express the heritage of obstreperous forebears, yet to many it communicates hatred (after all, it is still used by the KKK). The rainbow was meant to express God's promise to never flood the world again, yet to many it communicates pride and approval of homosexuality (after all, the Rainbow Flag was created by the homosexual community in 1978). It is very easy to make expressions with a symbol. It is not always easy to control communication with a symbol.
How to Use Symbols for Business
We use symbols in business all the time. Logos are essentially symbols; they are not our company, but they represent our company. We use symbols on websites all the time to represent certain aspects or services of our company. The tricky one is advertisements. Ads are symbols too, but they have dual roles. Sometimes they represent our company as a whole, but sometimes they just represent part. Plus, ads are frequently changing. They are almost never the same from one publication to the next or from one issue to the next. Constant change and shifting purpose makes clear communication very difficult.
So, how do you maintain control of what your ad-symbols actually communicate? The two most important things are clarity and consistency.
Obviously you want to start off with something that sends a clear message. It's impossible to know how everyone will interpret your message, but at very least you should think about it from different angles and get the opinions of other people. This is one of the reasons that outsourcing your advertisements to a company like us is such a good idea. You start off with an added perspective. However, you can't stop there! Ads give you the opportunity to clarify what your symbol means through copy. If there is some misinterpretation, clear copy can help redirect the message. At very least, it will make clear what implication was intended.
Consistency is probably the most important, unused tool in advertising. Every advertising agent, even marketer, ever graphic designer will tell you that consistently having your ads in a publication or medium reaps far more benefits that doing so sporadically. (Our wisdom far too often falls on deaf ears, and advertisers withdraw too soon because they do not see immediate results.) Consistency is important for another reason. To control the communication of your symbols, you must be consistent.
Let us look at the Red Cross as an example. Every soldier everywhere knows not to shoot at the Red Cross. To everyone it means peace and help. As a child watching M*A*S*H* I wondered aloud why people didn't just disguise their convoys as Red Cross units. I figured it would keep them safe. My mom (and fellow M*A*S*H* enthusiast) pointed out that "If the Red Cross symbol did not consistently mean medical aid, it would never be trust."
Point well made, Mom! Our symbols—whether logos, website graphics or advertisements—must be clear and consistent in order to clearly communicate our messages well.