We are surrounded by symbols, they are woven into society so inextricably that we don’t even notice them. And yet everyday we see them, understand them and they guide our behaviour. Tricky little devils.
The Changing Minds Organisation explains, “Symbols are communications that have specific meaning. Usually visual, symbols act as communication short-cuts that convey one or more messages that have been previously learned by both the sender and the recipient.”


There are the obvious symbols we use on the road to keep our behavioural system working. We all know that red means stop, we all know what a give way sign looks like. There are symbols we use to communicate with each other with our hands – the peace sign, a middle finger. There are behavioural symbols too, we know that giving someone flowers is not a symbol that you hate them an flying a white flag will not be seen as a call to battle. Not all symbols are at the societal level, within your own tribe or clan you might have a system of symbols that you have developed such as a code word that remind everyone of a particular past event. Then there are your own personal symbols that mean something to you.


Why are symbols important to building visual storytelling skills? Quite simply, they are your short hand. Professors of the symbolism project out of the University of Michigan say, “As the old adage goes “a picture is worth a thousand words.” Visual symbolism can be complex, because often times there is much more going on in the image than in, say, a given paragraph.” So when you are visual storytelling, one great symbol can replace an entire paragraph of text, or represent an hour of conversation. What’s more, for the audience who were present when the symbol emerged, the symbol will serve as a time machine in the future, transporting the person back to the time and place that the symbol was created and bringing back to mind the vast richness of meaning and definition that the symbol represent.


Identifying symbols

Identifying existing symbolism is a great way to ensure your visual storytelling will resonate. That means you are using back to the group the symbolism that is already embedded within their communication. This can be tricky as you are often not aware that the symbolism is there, you can be so familiar with it that you will take it for granted, and yet picking up on it will give you a rich source of content for your visual story.


The Changing Minds Organisation says, “Because symbols are short-cuts they usually by-pass conscious consideration, triggering deeply embedded subconscious responses.” So basically, if you want to start identifying symbols as part of your sense-making, you need to consciously tune in and be purposefully aware and looking for them. Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee on Huffington Post describes it as ‘symbolic consciousness’, a way to access the meaning and power of symbols. “Symbolic consciousness is a way of working with symbols that allows their meaning and energy into our consciousness. It is like a key that is needed to unlock the real potential, the energy of a symbol.”


So how do you unlock your symbolic consciousness? Like all great skills it takes practise. But here is one tip you can try. Because symbols have to have the same embedded meaning for the sender and the receiver, one way to identify a symbol is to imagine you gave the same message to someone completely alien to that context – would they understand the meaning? If the answer is no then there is embedded symbolism that you can unpack.


Creating symbols 

Sometimes it can be a very powerful tool when sense-making with a group to create new symbols together as your collective story is emerging. Or even to create your own symbols as you sense-make your own story individually. Now this whole process can happen in a matter of seconds when you are interpreting content and creating visual symbols in real time, but I have attempted to break down an approach to guide you when you are creating your own visual symbols:



  1. Think about what you want to symbolise.This might emerge as a central theme in a discussion. Sometimes it is the ‘part A’ of a group discussion that then becomes the assumption or the foundation concept that the rest of the conversation builds on. Rather than having to repeat back the full story of the foundation every time, a symbol allows the group to quickly be on the same page and continue building extended meaning. To turn this concept into a symbol, think about the objects or images that hold meaning for the group. Remember, your symbol does not need to be a literal representation.


  1. Pick the simplest image that works for your concept. The image should be something that is easily recognisable and impactful. Simplicity is important when creating an effective symbol. Try to keep the design simple, remove any unnecessary detail or distraction.


  1. Consider colour, size and shape.The colour of your symbol can also have a strong effect on how people perceive the symbol. Colours already have a built-in symbolism that is commonly used. Red can often represent anger, passion or danger. Green can mean jealousy or represent the environment. In the same way that colour comes with built in meaning, the way you size and position the visual pieces of your symbol can impact how they are perceived too. The largest component will automatically dominate, a circle will put your audience in mind of a cycle or a flow whereas a square has embedded meaning of strength, structure and balance.


I can hear some of you asking – aren’t you just talking about icons? Can’t you just use the library of icons you already have in your mind? While symbols are often represented as icons. Icons are not always great symbols. Symbols represent a larger communication, they have a depth of meaning that is shared amongst the participants of that communication. A great symbol, while simple in nature can mean sooo much more than just the single image of it’s icon. You can build visual stories relying purely on a set of icons, but to achieve something rich in meaning, you need to work a bit harder to find the shared narrative of the group.