How open to interpretation are logos?

pentacle star

Through our experiences, education and environment the potential for differences in the way people see interpret symbols/logos is enormous. After a recent comment on one of my logo designs ( which I’ll get to in a minute ) I thought I’d take a look at how wildly opinions on symbols can vary.

The pentacle star is one such symbol open to various interpretations. Often associated with satanic practices, the pentacle star has had many meanings throughout history, the earliest of which dates back to around 4,000BC and is the Pagan symbol for the sacred feminine, the female half of all things.

swastika logo

The Swastika, made notorious in 1939 by Nazi Germany with their invasion of Poland. In western and European cultures this symbol is universally associated with one of the worst periods of modern history. Its root however are far less macabre.

Like the pentacle star, the swastika dates back to around 10,000BC. More recently, the swastika has been used in Chinese, Japanese and Hindu culture for around 3000 years and is still used today as a symbol of good fortune, blessings, luck, vitality and life.

inverted cross

The inverted cross is another symbol with wildly opposite meanings. To some, the inverted cross represents the rejection of Jesus, anti-Christianity and any number of other Satan related meaning.

Many Catholics on the other hand wear the mark as a sign of humility in honour of St. Peter who supposedly elected to be crucified upside down as a sign of respect for Jesus as he did not feel worthy to be crucified in the same way. Not the way I’d choose to go, but hey…

rings logo

Finally to the logo that prompted this post, and a little history on its origin. The above logo was designed for Donaldson’s Jewellers, a jewellery store in Coffs Harbour which specialized in rings.

John and Cheryl Donaldson are jewellers, they were referred to me by my father who is a jeweller and as you can imagine I saw a lot of jewellery during my upbringing. The stationery is printed in a metallic gold Pantone and between the lot of us we all see rings.

I recently received a comment on logo with the person in question seeing books. I must confess, during the design process books didn’t entered my mind, and presumably no one else’s.

When printed in its gold Pantone and/or on the front of the Jewellery store, making the connection to jewellery is obvious, and the graphic icon is always used alongside the company name “Donaldson’s Jewellers”.

For the purposes of this article I have not included the company name and shown only the graphic icon. Looking at it, it’s understandable that someone may see books when the logo is not viewed in full context, I wonder why I didn’t see it then… jewellery on the brain?

The first 3 examples obviously have a lot of history, if you know any other symbols with such wildly varied interpretations I’d love to know them.

What do you see? Leave a comment and let me know.

21 thoughts on “How open to interpretation are logos?”

  1. Very good article. It brings to light another point, that a symbol in one culture, or one country, can have opposing meanings in another.

    Does this mean we should be aware of the differences as designers and not use the symbols?

  2. I think some symbols have such a stigma you probably couldn’t, or at least wouldn’t, Troy.

    I can imagine lifting the veil on a design featuring a swastika in front of a western/european client and trying to explain that it originally meant good fortune, probably wouldn’t be received too well.

    I must admit, the swastika was the primary example for this post but I intentionally didn’t make it the first image as I didn’t want peoples minds racing off before they understood the article.

    Perhaps I’m just paranoid, what do you think?

  3. I still find it astonishing how many people think ‘satan’ the second they see a pentagram. It is definitely a case of people being acclimatized to a certain way of thinking and then disregarding any other alternatives.

  4. I remember seeing the Swastika on statues and stuff when I went to Thailand. At Budhist temples and places like that.

    The pentagram I’d read before as a sign of protection too, the Saint Peters cross though I’d have never gotten. I’m not religious but it just seems the wrong way up to me

  5. Brendon,
    It’s got enough history that that will probably always be the case.

    It’s much the same as the Swastika I suppose, even though popular perception about it may be wrong, there’s enough of it that it isn’t likely to change.

    Jennifer, Milly,
    I wouldn’t have know any better before researching for this article either.

  6. Really interesting stuff to read Andrew. Reading about the logo you designed I see rings now but if you’d told me about books I guess I would see them. Just proves your post I guess.

  7. When I first looked at the image, I saw a collapsed stack of books. But that is out of context. With the name of the company, the message is clear.

  8. It’s easy to see why you had jewellery on your mind with how much you’ve seen. If you’ve got any spare, it’s my birthday soon.

    wink wink.

  9. The ring logo is interesting indeed. Without a name or literal context I read its meaning to be conceptually connected to the weight of gravity. However a left to right reading makes it appear as though it is about something standing up however not quite able to. Placed in connection to why people wear gold rings I find the symbolic meaning awkward.

  10. Rob,

    Symbolic of a marriage falling over you think? That’s certainly not what we were going for, ha.

    When used in reality the icon is always accompanied by the wordmark ( Donaldson’s Jewellers ), it’s interesting to hear you make reference to gravity also when looking at the symbol only.

    Thanks for you thoughts ( and yours K.r ).

  11. Hi,

    Interesting article. I recently saw the swatika in a program about China, and I remember thinking, “Why on earth would they have that up on the wall?” Didn’t know about the history of the symbol until my husband told me.

    As for your logo, I did think books when I saw it, but as soon as I read jewellery I thought of rings. It makes sense when used in context.

  12. Have to say I immediately thought books falling over (but that might be me as conditioned as you are with rings; I love books).

    But I think this is what makes logos so effective; when we see one we want to quickly work out what it is. By virtue of this action in our head we connect, and so remember, the brand. If there is a strong enough existing “story” in our minds that is what we refer to (like modern western cultures connection with the swaztika).

    That’s my take on it, though I could just be obsessed with stories in those books…

  13. Very true, it’s this subjective reasoning as to why it’s often good for designers to consult other people when coming up with a logo. A designer has all the information about the client; who they are, what they do, their history.

    Additionally they should know who they’re targeting and an idea of the contexts the logo will be seen in. It’s this deep overview of all materials that often gives a designer a strong understanding of how to interpret their logo design.

    The client also has a similar relationship which dilutes their opinion as well. It’s this reasoning as to why it’s good to get outside opinions to avoid any confusion or misinterpretation.

    Personally when I saw the “rings” I instantly thought of a used book store. It just goes to show sometimes we need to take a step back from our designs let others take a look and approach it with new eyes in order to get a clear full view and understanding.

  14. I think that design is visually experienced at the feeling level but most people do not have the ability to verbally articulate the visual experience, even many artists and designers do not have that ability but at least they can see.

    For most people light comes into their eyes and their basic reaction is to miss the visual experience and start classifying and categorizing in words. When they express in words they are not actually expressing the visual experience nor do they understand how they are affected by the visual experience.

    In understanding this question people’s verbal responses have little or nothing to do with how they visually experience the logo. That is why this is very difficult to measure.

    However I think if you take the ATT logo (the blue one, the second one) designed by Saul Bass and the present one that replaced it and lay them out on a table and let people see them for awhile you will see that people will gravitate towards the Saul Bass logo.

    In a sense the logos can verbally be described as having a “similar meaning” however the Saul Bass ATT logo is so much more visually sophisticated, and speaks directly to the heart while the newer one just kind of fills the space and limps along waiting to be blown up big and put on the rear end of the ATT vans where we find that hiding some of the logo makes it more visually interesting.

    When you ask people to explain it they will verbalize different reasons but the real reason is because the Saul Bass design is so good. It consistently, at the feeling level, says the same thing to everyone and what it says is what a logo should say, artistically, technically and in its meaning.

    While what people say has a lot to do with sales, marketing and creating a successful design process, the visual experience of a logo can only be judged by the behaviour of people—good logo design results in a consistent and appropriate response in the public, irregardless of how many differences of interpretation people express.

  15. Andrew, great article and have to say I didn’t see book or rings until I read “jewellery store”.

    The small details distinguish the shapes quite subtly which you would notice more being brought up around jewellery. The convex ends give away the idea of rings, where a book would more commonly have indented or square ends. Also to think about, if someone is looking for jewellery they would be more likely to see rings in this logo, hence more targeted audience.

    Great branding in my opinion. All images seen by anyone are open to interpretation, we seen what we want to, that’s where our job gets hard, guiding that interpretation to where we want it to go.

  16. Exactly why understanding the audience for a mark is of utmost importance. The client will likely be looking through a different set of lenses than the audience as well, so educating them on this point is paramount.

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