It is better to know and use symbols than to be used by them.

Signs & Symbols: Their Design and Meaning – Adrian Frutiger (1998)

            I have always been interested in the meanings and power of symbols.  Symbols are everywhere in our life, and especially in our modern society.  Words are symbols.  In fact, letters themselves are symbols, standing for abstract ideas.  The more powerful symbols contain within them various, sometimes conflicting, meanings.  I always enjoy reading about the source of symbols and how the human mind processes the symbolism.

            This book is a source of countless ideas about symbols, and its true value lies in how it explains the creation of symbols from the most basic parts to their use through time.  Long sections explain the differences between the aspects of visual symbols.  For example, the meaning inherent in a three-sided box changes when viewed from different perspectives.  If the box is open at the top, it can be interpreted as a container or a hole.  The same symbol on its side is something else entirely.  It is now a letter “C,” a fallen cup an opening to a cave, etc.  These kinds of things apply to every aspect of a symbol.

Some symbols are indecipherable.

            Symbols are dependent on the minds of those viewing them and the associations that they bring.  Knowing the differences between them can enlighten a person.  It can also protect a person from absorbing meanings which are not part of one’s thoughts to begin with.  Being aware is very important.  A symbol seen by the unaware mind will still convey the intended meaning but the mind will not put it into its intended context until it is viewed consciously.  This is why so many print ads for liquor include symbols which point to death.  Those who see these symbols uncritically do not realize why morbid thoughts occur to them afterwards, or why they associate liquor with killing, as in the way people use liquor to “kill” unwanted thoughts in their heads, to numb themselves.  Alcoholism is slow suicide and the makers of alcohol know and use this to their advantage, all in an effort to get you to part with your money.

            While this book was fairly dry and technical, it did help me to better see what I used to not see, and to better understand the lives that symbols have outside of our own minds.  Symbols are powerful indeed.

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