5 Types of Symbols That Are Begging to Be Used in Logos


Traditional symbols seem like they’re already set up for logo design because they’re simple, scaleable, easy to replicate, and carry a ton of meaning. Distorting, recreating, and combining them seems like an excellent way to convey a message, and make a client happy by showing you put the extra thought into the design process. Symbolism is a visually tantalizing form of communication that almost certainly goes under appreciated. 

Earlier, I wrote about how I’m beginning to design logos for freelance sites, and how I wish someone gave me a few pointers before starting. Well, I recently decided to use traditional symbols in my logo designs until I read two articles from The Logo Factory that basically said, forget originality and use what already works in the case of crowdsourcing. Since, I probably won’t have too many opportunities to put my idea in motion, I want to give it away by listing the 5 types of symbols that are begging to be used in logos.

Before I begin this article, I want to mention that I’m sure some of these symbols have been used in logos before, but they were probably rare exceptions. In fact, after some Googling, I think I might be the first person writing on this topic. So, if you use an idea from this article, feel free to share your story, or a link to your work in the comments section.

Without further ado:

#1 – Adinkra


Adinkra would have you believe they were designed specifically to be used for logos. They originate from the Ashanti, Ghanaians, and they’re made to be easily carved into calabash to be used as stamps. The most widely known use of Adinkra symbols is to stamp them on cloth in various patterns, but they’re making an emergence through jewelry and t-shirts. The widespread use of Adinkra symbols is surprisingly absent from western pop culture, but is extremely pervasive throughout West Africa.


There are hundreds of Adinkra symbols, although wikipedia states that early Africanist, Robert Sutherland Rattray was able to compile 53 samples of them in his 1927, Religion and Art in Ashanti. Jean McDonald of Portland hosts an excellent site with about 60 examples of Adinkra symbols at Adinkra.org.

On a side note, the Ashanti people shouldn’t be too unfamiliar if you watched Wishbone as a kid. There was an episode about the legend of Anansi The Spider at one point during the show, and references to Anansi pop up every now and then in pop culture.

Why They’re Good for Logo Design

The meanings of Adinkra Symbols are faithfully congruous to the core values that companies are often trying to convey to customers. They symbolize things like safety, cooperation, vigilance, quality control, and skillfulness. They’re also very simple, memorable designs that are all made to fit onto squares, and are incredibly easy to alter or combine.

#2 – Alchemical Symbols


For those of you who don’t know, alchemy was a proto-science that most likely originated from somewhere around Egypt, and is recognized as the ancestor to modern chemistry.

Alchemy TableAlchemy has a pretty interesting history in that it was intrinsically tied with religion and philosophy throughout its practice. Not only are Alchemical texts written with allegorical sub verses, but they are full also of rich symbolism. The use of signs emerged as a form of shorthand to represent different elements, tools and processes that alchemists used. The meaning of some symbols varied from one alchemist to the next, so discrepancies occasionally surface throughout researchers’ works.

Why They’re Good for Logo Design

Like Adinkra symbols, alchemical signs strongly resemble logos the way they are already. They’re simple, professional, clean cut symbols that accurately convey a good or service that their respective company offers while carrying an added mystique. For people who recognize alchemical symbols when they see them, using one in a logo screams, “We know what we’re talking about.” Many alchemical symbols are fortunately linked to standard Unicode, which makes the design process even easier.

#3 – Runes


Runes functioned as an alphabet for proto-norse and german spoken languages. According to The Complete Encyclopedia of Signs and Symbols, the term rune is derived from the Middle High German, runa meaning secret. An appropriate name, because runes had more meaning than what was necessary to support their spoken languages. They were typically inscribed into stone or wood or employed as a presage, so the language doesn’t have any horizontal strokes to avoid splitting wood grain.

Although runes represented sounds the same way letters of the Roman alphabet do, individual runes also represented words, or concepts when inscribed alone. For instance, the fehu rune employed in the picture above makes the “f” sound, and is also a symbol for livestock (wealth). Omniglot.com has a comprehensive collection of runes paired with some of their meanings.

Why They’re Good for Logo Design

The Scandinavian Bluetooth company logo employs the Bjarkan bind rune, so it serves as an excellent example. It already resembles a letter of the Roman Alphabet (B), but it has a second meaning. The Bjarkan rune symbolizes a birch tree and represents growth. It’s recognizable, memorable, and it pays homage to the national origin of the company using it.

#4 – Cuneiform Pictographs


I have been patiently waiting for someone to use the cuneiform symbol for beer on their craft brew labels for a long time now. It fits so perfectly since they (the Sumerians) invented beer and brands love to talk about how long their recipe has remained “faithful to the original.” Researchers believed they had found some ancient beer recipes, but they’ve recently begun expressing doubts. It’s the thought that counts.

Cuneiform pictographs are some of the earliest known examples of written language. Originating from the ancient Mesopotamian Fertile Crescent, they have undergone numerous stages of development. The most unique feature of Cuneiform is the staggering amount of time that it remained in use. Wikipedia dates its use to extend from the 34th century BC to the 1st century AD. By comparison, Sanskrit is the oldest language that’s still spoken, and it only dates back to circa 1500 BC. In other words it just recently became the only other language to have been in use for the same amount of time. To be fair, Cuneiform stretched across numerous dialects with origins in a proto-Semitic language called Akkadian, but that’s not important.

Cuneiform Writing

Cuneiform has visually evolved as a language over centuries.

Why They’re Good for Logo Design

Cuneiform is useful because each pictograph has it’s own meaning AND an evolutionary timeline that completely transforms the symbol’s appearance. Have you ever wanted to use an image, but it didn’t quite fit into the design? Directly above is a plethora of different symbols that all mean the same thing in the same language. Plus they’re all fairly distinct looking (compared to what we’re used to seeing).

#5 – Old Archetypal Symbols


What is that logo? It’s a Phrygian Cap.

What’s a Phrygian Cap? It’s the hat that Columbia often wore to symbolize freedom.

Who’s Columbia? I’ll give you a clue, she can be seen at the beginning of many movies, and she partly inspired a statue out in New York Harbor.

Archetypal symbols are ones that are culturally recognizable to us. When we see a floppy disk button on a computer screen, we know that it’s used to save items. However, Cracked wrote a whole article on how our kids will see the same button and have no clue what it symbolizes because floppy disks just plain won’t be familiar to them.

Archetypal symbols stand alone as incredibly powerful symbols with long and deep histories. The Statue of Liberty for instance, is replete with the colorful imagery of American freedom, and the struggle of immigrants who first saw the statue as their ships put in to Ellis Island. Since ancient Rome, the Phrygian cap has served as a similar symbol of emancipation.

Why They’re Good for Logo Design

Modern archetypal symbols are so recognizable that they run the risk of making the logos they’re used in look hackneyed (If you don’t believe me, look at what The Logo Factory has to say about Ubuntu Logos) . This is especially true in a world where there’s so much content at our fingertips that we quickly become bored. Revitalizing old or ancient archetypes can be a creative way to break out of modern design trends and keep history alive.

Some Excellent Resources on Symbols:

An Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Traditional Symbols

The Complete Encyclopedia of Signs & Symbols

Symbols Signs and Signets (Dover Pictorial Guide)

If anyone reading this article has an idea for different symbols, or would like to share their own results, feel free to leave a comment. Information on symbolism is sparse and often conflicts with other sources, but if there’s something I’m definitely wrong about, feel free to also correct me in the comments.

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