Curious Minds Podcast: Why We ♥️ Symbols
Explore how artists, media, and brands have made meaning through imagery with Curious Minds, an original podcast by Domestika
Curious Minds is an original podcast by Domestika that explores the curiosities and untold histories of the creative world.
Each week we’ll bring you a new episode, interviewing experts and creatives as we dive into the unusual origins of the images, patterns, and designs we take for granted.
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From logos to love notes, to capturing the essence of entire cities in a single image, our impulse to use symbols is what makes us, well, us.
But what makes us look at a drawing of a bitten piece of fruit and instantly think of iPhones and computers? And can we really assume that other people will understand us when we send a certain emoji?
In our second episode of Curious Minds, we explore where symbols, like the heart, come from and how they keep changing.
Including excerpts from a 2019 Domestika Maestros interview with designer Milton Glaser on the story behind his iconic I ♥️ NY logo, we speak with Marcel Danesi, a professor of Semiotics and Linguistic Anthropology at the University of Toronto, and Art Historian and author Valerie Shrimplin to discover how artists, media, and brands have transformed the meaning of symbols throughout history.
You can download the transcript of this episode at the end of this article.
“They say a picture’s worth a thousand words, and the use of a symbol like a heart can sum up and convey an idea very succinctly - which is part of the artistic aims of many artists,” says Dr. Shrimplin.
While the shorthand that abstracted symbols create helps images communicate with us quickly, our collective understanding of what they mean relies on context and our own visual literacy. We look at and understand a flirtatious emoji, or a skull and crossbones, because we’ve learned what they represent.
What a symbol represents is flexible and can change over time though. The shape we today associate with the heart - two round bumps with a pointed bottom - can be found on ancient artifacts, and while there are theories as to what it signified, “who the heck knows what a heart symbol might have meant in Egypt, unless someone wrote about it,” says Dr. Danesi.
The heart as a symbol of love can be traced back to the medieval ages in Europe, but even as artists began painting the heart in ways that fit our modern understanding of it (think, a man handing his heart to a woman) the heart didn’t quite look like a heart yet. The complex cardiovascular organ was painted more like a pear. Or a pinecone. But just like our modern version of the symbol doesn’t look like an actual heart, the meaning was still understood.
Today, many of the meaning makers behind symbols are designers, and we call the symbols that represent entities, such as companies, “logos”.
“You never know what's going to stick… even though you have a lot of information, you don't know what symbols, what images, what colours, what icons will emerge from the work you do. And I can say that in the case of I ♥️ New York, it was totally unprecedented,” Glaser told us, reflecting on the logo he created for New York state nearly 50 years ago.
Beyond giving a boon to the city’s souvenir sales, his logo also showed how a centuries old logo could still be adapted, changing the way we use and write with the symbol in our everyday lives. Because when we look at the logo what we see is a heart. But when we read it out loud? We say “love”. The heart is no longer a thing, but an action. That means today we often use the heart emoji in place of writing out the verb.
But Glaser’s iconic logo almost didn’t happen. And it’s not the only example of an unexpected symbol turning into a cultural landmark.
To discover more about how we create symbols, how we give them meaning, and when they might not be as clear as you think, you can listen to Curious Minds on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.
Click on the link below to download a transcript of this episode. You’ll be able to view it once it’s available in your Downloads folder as a PDF.
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Why We ♥️ Symbols - Transcript.pdf
If you'd like to read more stories behind the images, patterns, and designs we take for granted, check out our other blog posts for Curious Minds, an original podcast by Domestika.
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- Domestika Maestros: Milton Glaser
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