Symbolism in Design

The headline in a my community newspaper reads:

(Building) Design that symbolizes river meeting ocean meets siding crews

It is referring to the building that hosted the Olympic Speed Skating events. They are adding new siding to it that, essentially, is a gradation of light blue to dark blue.

Now, I drive by this building several times a week. It is one of these buildings that is full of “symbolism”. Art surrounding the building symbolizes the plight of the fisherman, etc.

I am curious what your thoughts are on symbolism. Is it a necessary part of design? If the artist is the only one who sees the symbolism, or it must be explained, is the symbolism successful?


Here’s a photo for context…

I certainly wouldn’t say symbolism is required in every design or architecture project, though it is good in some situations. Public spaces, especially those that celebrate or commemorate something, can be good places for it. In product design most often it seems out of place (though is enjoyable and refreshing when it’s done well and relevant). It’s often appropriate to do things that might be confused for symbolism, like making something that holds scissors visually resemble scissors, but I don’t think that really fits the bill. I guess technically that might fit one of the dictionary definitions, but when I think of symbolism I think of adding meaning and representing something outside of what is immediately there.

As for judging success, I don’t think the viewer needs to be able to pick up on the exact meaning, but they need to catch that the objects have some meaning and are vaguely in the right direction. Otherwise the designer can call it their inspiration, but would not be considered a success in creating symbolism. In your example if a viewer saw the building as perhaps the blending or of two bodies of water, or even flowing water or water in transition, then I’d say that’s a success. If they just saw it as blue, and figured it’s blue because water is blue and ice is made of water, then I don’t really think you can call it symbolism. Even if you tagged on “…and that symbolizes the ice they’re skating on” I think that’s pretty lame.

I suspect that symbolism can work just fine (or perhaps even perfectly) if it is only registered largely subconsciously. A good example perhaps being automotive styling which will often symbolize or suggest desirable qualities such as speed , strength and prestige within their form.

I personally love a bit of symbolism in a good logo, especially if multiple layers of meaning gradually reveal themselves in a design you liked from the start!

And where does symbolism cross over with inspiration?

I love putting hidden details in things that represent a brand’s history. Sometimes we would hide a “1908” somwhere in a traction pattern at Converse because that was the year the company was founded. History, context, symbolism, and inspiration are all elements at our disposal to tell richer stories through products, bit they can’t get in the way of the product itself.

When I read your post about the river hitting the ocean I thought to myself “here we go…” but seeing the picture, it seems more like an inspiration to get to that gradated siding which is a really cool idea. Whatever it takes to get there, as long as the result is quality!

I am glad this seems to be heading in the direction that I was thinking it would.

The question, for me, is the idea of Symbolism being confused with Inspiration here? Like you, Yo, my first reaction is “Here we go”. It feels as though the “symbolism” is stapled onto the end product as an afterthought, as opposed to being something that inspired the design.

I believe “Where the River Meets the Ocean” is valid as inspiration. But when you cross it over into labeling it as Symbolism it starts sounding like artsy fartsy self-congratulation.

Perhaps a good example of where symbolism went overboard is the recent post on the Core main page…

Watching Peter Arnell justifying the design of the Tropicana packaging was painful. The number of cliche ‘inspirations’ and symbols that were used without any kind of subtly is surely a good example of how NOT to use symbolism in design.

In the end it is all about telling a good and compelling story.
This can be done rather obvious or more subtle, depending on the product or project at hand.

Personally, I think that a story generally makes the experience richer. It really depends though.
There are products where for me the symbolic aspects are rather confusing, silly bordering on tacky and unnecessary for the job the product has to do.
Case in point, Starck’s Excalibur toilet brush. I just want the thing to do its job and forget about it. I feel annoyed by anything that makes me communicate further with this product beyond its obvious function.
On the other hand, a beer or a sneaker for example benefits greatly from a good story and it definitely influences and enhances my experience.