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The Power of Symbols

25. Jan 2017

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Applications,

Imagine you´re chatting with a friend on WhatsApp and want to let them know you found their last message quite funny. What would you answer? “I think that’s funny”? Probably not. You´d likely send a symbol: the laughing emoji, or if it was really funny, choose the laughing with tears emoji. 

It doesn’t just save time because it´s only one click versus clicking several letters. It’s also much more emotional because of it’s look and aesthetic appeal.

Emojis are probably the most popular example to highlight the power of symbols. The power of emojis is a result of their vividness, amusement, value, and clarity.

The power of symbols is not only deployed in our messengers, but also on our streets (stop, crosswalks, yield signs), on webpages (a house for homepage, an envelope for the contact link, the social media symbols) and also on our computers (cursor as an arrow, garbage can as trash).

Worldwide Recognition

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The power of symbols is not just their simplicity but also their ability to work as a global language. For example:

  • Instead of translating ‘play‘ into many languages, a triangle-symbol on a media player will be enough to let everyone know that with this button, the video or audio file can be started.
  • Even if we don’t know what the Japanese word for ‘airport’ is, we would still find the airport in Tokyo because we understand the airplane symbol.
  • If we’re not sure how to ask where the bathroom is in Spanish, we just look for the little man/woman symbol which will show us the way.

So, these little icons make communicating a message without using language-specific words possible.

The Cultural Power of Symbols

It’s clear that symbols are powerful, and it´s necessary to keep in mind using this power in the right way.

When it comes to using symbols, we should always take into account that there are occasional barriers due to local, cultural, or religious differences.

Here’s a rather harmless example:

In an 80s operating system of Apple, the trash icon led to confusion in Great Britain. The American trash can looked like a typical British mailbox. So why to put trash files in there?

A trashcan-versus-mailbox-look might not lead to a relevant conflict. When it comes to religious symbols or hand gestures though, well thought out research is more important. For example:

  • The Red Cross has been adapted as the Red Crescent in the Middle East:

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  • While thumbs-up means agreement or approval in many cultures, in Thailand it is an explicit sign for contempt – similar to what sticking out your tongue would mean for other parts of the world.
  • Such common symbols as the red rose can even cause confusion. In most countries it stands for love and romance, but in Latvia it marks funerals.

Luckily, the heart may be one of the only symbols that works across all languages, all religions, all cultures, and all countries. So it is possible to spread love and appreciation to the whole world without misunderstanding – thanks to the power of one symbol. So what´s just left at the end is this:

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