Logos, emblems, symbolism, and really bad ideas

By Gordon Rugg

I’ve been working on logo design recently. It’s a neat example of how concepts that we’ve blogged about fit together. There are no prizes for guessing what the topic of this article will be…

Symbolism and reality; some examplesbannerv1Images from Wikipedia and Wikimedia Commons; full attributions at the end of this article

Logos and related concepts, such as heraldic symbolism, have been around for a very long time. They’re a good example of something that can be both highly expressive and highly instrumental (i.e. good at sending out social signals and good at handling some functional task).

The classic example is military flags. These showed which side you belonged to, which had both high expressive value and high instrumental value.

One of the most famous flags is the Great Garrison Flag that inspired the song “The Star Spangled Banner”. It flew over the Fort McHenry garrison during the American War of Independence. At an expressive level, it had obvious symbolism. At an instrumental level, it showed who was in control of the fort, which had highly practical implications. Its instrumental function involved being clearly visible from as far away as possible, so it was huge; it was originally 42 feet by 30 feet.

In case you’re wondering whether the visibility of a flag was really such a big deal, here’s an example that changed the course of history.

One of the key battles in the English Wars of the Roses was the Battle of Barnet, in 1471. The Yorkist side was led by Edward IV. One of his opponents on the Lancastrian side was the Earl of Oxford. At a key point in the battle, Oxford’s troops emerged from the fog behind their Lancastrian allies, ready to give their support. It should have been a decisive moment. It actually was a decisive moment, but for the wrong reason.

The symbol on Edward’s flag was the sun in splendour. The symbol on Oxford’s flag was the star with rays. In the fog, they looked something like this.

Opposing flags in the fog: What could possibly go wrong…?flags of the rosesv2Sun in splendour image on the left from Wikipedia; attribution at the end of this article

The Lancastrian army thought that they were being attacked from the rear by Edward’s forces, and started shooting at Oxford’s army. Oxford’s army didn’t see the funny side of the situation, and started shooting back. Both the Lancastrian army and Oxford’s army thought that they had been betrayed. Chaos ensued. Edward won a decisive victory, which turned the course of the war, leading to his eventual victory.

So, logos and symbols can have very real instrumental uses. What about their expressive uses?

Symbolism, and big fierce scary animals

The underlying regularities in choice of mascots, emblems, etc have been studied in depth by a range of disciplines, so I won’t go into this subject in depth.

As you might expect, one regular favourite is the big, fierce, scary-looking animal. Perception is more important than reality in this respect.

For instance, if you’re assessing animals in terms of how dangerous they are to humans, male lions have been a favourite element in heraldry and symbolism for millennia, but in reality they’re less dangerous to humans than hippos. Hippos kill thousands of people each year; lions kill a few hundred people each year, but you don’t see many hippos in heraldry anywhere outside Ankh-Morpork.

Similarly, if you’re assessing animals in terms of their success as a species, then beetles have been around a lot longer than lions, and will probably be around long after lions are gone, but not many sports teams would be persuaded into adopting a beetle as mascot by that reasoning.

Outward visibility of signals is also a big issue in this respect. Male lions have impressive-looking manes, which send out a strong signal of masculinity (also a favourite theme in traditional heraldry and related fields). Again, reality takes second place to outward impression; lionesses make a lot more kills than male lions, but that doesn’t count for much in traditional choice of symbols.

Game theory: is it worth the effort?

Another way of looking at logos and symbols also relates to animals, but in a very different way. Game theory provides an elegant and powerful way of assessing the strategies being used in a given situation, with particular reference to costs and gains.

One example of this involves the Red Queen Effect. Most organisations want to have a logo which will stand out and be memorable. The disadvantage of this desire becomes obvious if you try looking at the bookmark list in your browser. Because most of the sites on that list will have chosen striking, colourful designs, the result looks like a kaleidoscope that’s been on a bad acid trip. If everyone is trying to find a design that stands out from the rest, then you end up with a non-stop race for every more striking designs. Even if you just want to have a moderate, middle-of-the-road logo, you’ll still have to make your logo more striking, because if you don’t, you’ll be left behind. This effect is named after the Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland, where people have to run continually in order to stay in the same place.

A sideways sidebar: Striking logosbookmarks

This issue highlights one advantage of using a “timeless” design and/or an unusual design, rather than a fashionable one; by definition, fashions change fast, making this year’s fashionable design become a dated relic next year, whereas style has a much lower rate of change.

Another advantage of focusing on style involves a concept from evolutionary ecology, namely costly honest signalling.

As the name implies, this involves signals that are honest, and that involve a significant cost; the cost is usually a major factor in ensuring that the signal is honest.

There are numerous example of this principle in the animal world. A classic case is the Irish elk. The stags of this species had antlers with a span of up to 12 feet, which imposed a huge cost on their bodies. However, huge antlers were an honest signal to females that the stag was in prime condition, since an unhealthy stag wouldn’t be able to grow such large antlers. Another classic example is the peacock; yet another is the mane of the male lion, bringing us full circle back to the starting point of this article.

Costly, honest, male signalselk and peacockImages from Wikipedia; full attributions at the end of this article

Honest costly signalling is very much a feature of human life. In the case of design, for instance, you can build features into the design that show its cost in terms of materials, or of time and effort, or of skill. Here’s an example. You couldn’t fake something like this; it’s an honest signal that you have a great deal of wealth and power. Whether creating it in the first place is a good idea is another question…

A really costly honest signalrococo“BasilikaOttobeurenHauptschiff02” by Johannes Böckh & Thomas Mirtsch – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:BasilikaOttobeurenHauptschiff02.JPG#/media/File:BasilikaOttobeurenHauptschiff02.JPG

To round off this article, I’ll return to one of the images in the banner. It’s the image of two snakes twined around a winged staff, like the image on the left below.

Count the snakes…snakesImages from Wikimedia Commons; full attributions at the end of this article

I’m returning to it because it’s an elegant example of a risk involved in using symbolism, namely the risk of accidentally sending out a completely unintended signal. This has long been a rich source of ironic amusement to those of us who view pedantry and obscure knowledge as valuable contributions to civilisation. In the case of the winged staff with the snakes, technically known as a caduceus, there’s a widespread belief that it’s a classical symbol of medicine. In fact, in classical antiquity it was the traditional staff of Mercury, neatly described in Wikipedia as: “the messenger of the gods, guide of the dead and protector of merchants, shepherds, gamblers, liars, and thieves”. This isn’t exactly the ideal set of associations if you’re in a medical profession; instead, the classical symbol of medicine is the Staff of Asclepius, which has one snake twining round a stick. The caduceus is traditionally the symbol of commerce and negotiation. I will refrain from comment…

Notes, sources and links


“Lion waiting in Namibia” by Kevin Pluck – Flickr: The King.. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lion_waiting_in_Namibia.jpg#/media/File:Lion_waiting_in_Namibia.jpg

“Goliath beetle”. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Goliath_beetle.jpg#/media/File:Goliath_beetle.jpg

“Caduceus large” by Rama – Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Caduceus_large.jpg#/media/File:Caduceus_large.jpg

“Okonjima Lioness” by Falense – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Okonjima_Lioness.jpg#/media/File:Okonjima_Lioness.jpg

“Giant deer” by Bazonka – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Giant_deer.JPG#/media/File:Giant_deer.JPG

“Paonroue” by Jebulon – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Paonroue.JPG#/media/File:Paonroue.JPG

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Caduceus_Detail_Of_Giuseppe_Morettis_1922_Bronze_Hygeia_Memorial_To_World_War_Medical_Personnel_Pittsburgh_PA.jpg“Aeskulapstab 5779” by Andreas Schwarzkopf – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons –



There’s more about the theory behind this article in my latest book: Blind Spot, by Gordon Rugg with Joseph D’Agnese.


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