Alan Kirker

Symbol and Representation

May 12th, 2020 by

Elemental to art are notions of symbol and representation. “Representation is the use of signs that stand in for and take the place of something else. It is through representation that people organize the world and reality through the act of naming its elements” (Wikipedia, retrieved May 2020).

Symbols such as images can often be simplifications of broader concepts, and as author of An Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Traditional Symbols, J. C. Cooper states, “constitute an international language transcending normal limits of communication” (p. 7). In a graphic arts example of deep design, a symbol or logo that is created to represent an organization may seek to embody some key emblematic aspect and become its recognized brand. Perhaps its presentation echos values that accord with what is socio-culturally relevant to the organization’s self-perception. Straight lines, and bold, sans-serif typefaces tend to project a sense of cleanliness, order, and stability. Lower-case, or upper-and-lower case typesetting can tend to soften and humanize a name. Often, these sorts of decisions are made with great thought; not only applied to what is being represented, but at to whom it is aimed. Layers of meaning are thus distilled into, and projected by otherwise simple symbols. Some treatments have benefited from creative and serendipitous design: The bold, right-pointing arrow formed in the negative space of the FedEx logo, even if not consciously perceived, works to reinforce an image of movement, direction, and when coupled with the bold, colourful, sans-serif type, projects the logistics company with an air of modern, unbridled efficiency.

Certain symbols become so recognized, so popular, so important as to practically supersede in some deep manner, that which they represent. Consider in this light the many traditional symbols that form the broad pantheon of religious iconography. Or more recent graphic design examples in the case of the Nike “swoosh” and Michael Jordan logos; two popular symbols that on a practical level became more valuable than the products they represent. While in design school, there circulated a cautionary tale on the topic of attaching maximal value to the creation of these important little symbols. Evidently, the designer who created the Nike swoosh only got paid several hundred dollars for his work; at the time neither he nor his client could have foreseen it coming to represent a multi-billion dollar company.

One spoken or written representational equivalent of the symbol is referred to as a metaphor;a figure of speech that, for rhetorical effect, directly refers to one thing by mentioning another”. Noted author and scholar of comparative religion credited with inspiring George Lucas to create the movie Star Wars, Joseph Campbell, wrote and spoke at great length about the importance of symbol, metaphor, and myth across both time and culture. He declared that God is not some entity or being, but rather a metaphor for the mystery of life that transcends all human cogitation. If we are to try and update his definition with more contemporary language, could it read; God is a metaphor for the serendipitous, synchronous, and otherwise inexplicable but somehow intrinsically relevant phenomena, which emerge from complexity and complex systems? Or, does updating an interpretation in such a manner leave out important aspects of what is being represented? As J. C. Cooper, states, “A symbol can never be a mere form, as is the sign, nor can it be understood except in the context of its religious, cultural, or metaphysical background, the soil from which it grew. The symbol is a key to a realm greater than itself” (p.7).

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