Design History Primer 1: Symbols

I recently wanted to read something on Design history since I really enjoy the subject and I find it so fascinating. And while looking for an interesting bit of Design history to read, I found A site originally launched in 1999 by Nancy Stock-Allen as a companion to her lectures on Graphic Design History. The site has 11 pages of essential subjects in Design History. I’ll do a quick post on each after I’ve read them and give you my quick impressions and comments.


Clearly labeled as “not a substitute for attending class”, this first page covers the basics and offers enough to get your feet wet or refresh your memory on symbols and logos. It starts with a primer listing the differences between a pictogram, a rebus, an ideogram, a trademark/brand, a logotype, a printer’s device, a monogram, and a coat of arms & family crest. Today some of these are used or referred to interchangeably and knowing the difference will help knowing when and how to use each and whether to mix one with another when working on a project such as a logo.

Then it moves on to symbol contemporary symbol pioneers from Raymond Lowey and the Shell Oil logo to Paul Rand and the IBM logo to the AIGA and the International Transportation symbols (free for download here!.) Then a quick touch on digital symbols such as the CBS logo by William Golden and the original icon-based Macintosh GUI by Susan Kare. Very good to know about these and how digital symbols have roots in fine arts–where else?

An important section here is the section on Cultural Mismatch. The American Red Cross in the Middle East and the skull and crossbones and its recent evolution. Cultural issues of appropriateness and the ability to convey a message globally are increasingly more important as brands big or small go global. The world is indeed getting smaller.

Lastly it covers a bit of re-branding, citing Poland’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and a new logo to be used to promote tourism and trade, and Nike–how the famous swoosh was perceived then and now. And a nice nod to Anti-Branding finishes off this piece with the world’s first global anti-brand created by Adbusters magazine and its Black Spot Sneaker. An eco-friendly, anti-brand sneaker in which the black spot replaces the corporate logo.

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