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Lessons of Applied Linguistics: How to Successfully Use Symbols and Metaphors in Your Logo Design

A logo designer can’t be expected to amaze people all the time. You know that little thing called “the wow factor”? Most people assume that, when it comes to creative work, you need amazing intuition to be stunning. Though, that’s not exactly how it is.

Intuition resembles a muscle, so it should be exercised to provide results. Intuition means connecting the dots between previous bits of knowledge. If you want your work to look universal and appeal to people, it takes work.

This work refers to learning more about symbols and metaphors. Learning this will help you use them strategically and not solely rely on inspiration. It will also make your logos attractive and memorable. Sounds complicated? Read along.

From your unconscious to a universal audience

Do you know the best part about symbols and metaphors? They’re universal. We all know what a red heart or white pigeon stands for. These abstract images inspire similar feelings in all people that are part of the same culture.

Constructing a universal logo means you’re appealing to a very broad audience. And remember that your logo defines your brand’s visual identity. Therefore, your brand can be easily associated with some concepts and easily remembered.

Intuition plays an important part in the process too. Some can dismiss it in favour of hard work, while others put it on a pedestal. Recent research shows that intuition is essential in solving problems creatively. Though, intuition isn’t just something you’re born with; it’s something you can learn to master.

So in a world that asks you to be creative quickly and with a minimum budget, you need to learn how to merge gut feelings and thinking. That way, you can engage your audience’s subconscious by using metaphors and symbols. The best thing about symbolic communication is that it’s packed with feelings and information, although it’s concise.

Symbols one-on-one

Language experts and philosophers have battled with defining symbols since Greek antiquity. Although there are different views on what a symbol is, everyone agrees symbols have certain characteristics. Firstly, they’re complete entities in themselves, unlike words, which are composed of different letters. Secondly, they’re processed quickly at an intuitive level. Thirdly, they refer to objects that are common to all people.

This means that symbols are an archetype of our communication. Archetypal symbols are very abstract, but they have an amazing quality for designers: they’re deeply embedded in the human subconscious. Therefore, simple symbols have the same signification regardless of culture, like a circle is associated with life. More complex symbols have a different interpretation depending on culture, like the ancient Egyptian pyramids or the Australian Southern Cross.

From symbols to logos

There are two types of logos: symbolic and letterform. Though, which one is better? Symbols are usually understood at an unconscious level, which means people grasp their meaning immediately. Words, on the other hand, are something people have to think about first, so they can connect them to a mental image or an idea. That’s why symbolic logos are faster and more effective.

Moreover, symbols can easily be understood by people regardless of their culture. Conversely, to know what a word means, you have to speak the language it’s written in. The conclusion is that symbolic logos can appeal to a broader audience.

So should you ditch letterform logos altogether? If you’re smart about it, you can use words right alongside symbols.

Who here isn’t familiar with the FedEx logo and that little arrow showing how fast FedEx is? If a good symbol can easily be understood by a broader audience, this also means you have a flexible tool that you can use for other purposes. Logos that are based on symbols have a high degree of versatility.

However, a versatile logo should be simple, so that the audience can recognise it fast and connect to it. These sorts of logos are evergreen, so they can be used even when the company changes. That’s why they’re a great tool for long-term branding. Moreover, a symbolic design should be simple, meaning you should employ negative space and the principles of minimalism in your logo designs.

Metaphors, logos and elephants

Metaphors connect very contrasting concepts, which helps the audience to associate a brand with a particular concept. Metaphors help make brands unique in the mind of their potential consumers so that they can be remembered faster. Because metaphors help to differentiate a brand from the competition, logos can create a meaningful connection between the brand and its audience.

The Elefont logo, designed by Mike Erickson, shows pure genius at work. The logo is the letter “e” shown as a coiled elephant trunk, which activates people’s attention on various levels.

Your attention is firstly activated on a semantic level because you first grasp the meaning of the images used. Secondly, the audience is moving to a symbolic level, which associates the elephant trunk to the elephant itself. Because hey, which better symbol for an elephant than its huge trunk? Then you’re moving to a semantic level again – it’s what’s called meta-semantic. You can even chuckle a bit to yourself when you understand how similar the words “elephant” and “Elephont” are. Lastly, there’s the metaphoric level. You’re associating the letter “e” with the brand’s name. And it’s not simply luck that the letter “e” is the first letter of “Elephont”. The font chosen for designing this letter and the brand’s name below it are also not pure luck.

You can also notice that this is a simple, yet powerful logo thanks to some design choices. Much can be said about the use of colours, or lack thereof, in creating simplicity, poignancy and employing minimalism. But take, for instance, the use of negative and positive space, and how the white trunk hides between the black contours of the letter “e”. By using these two spaces, the logo designers are employing a design principle called closure gestalt, which makes the logo communicate more effectively.

You can see that it’s not easy to create a good metaphoric logo. To make it work, you have to do proper research on your client: their activity, their mindset, philosophy, and objectives. You also need to focus on design and visual aspects, like their name and previous logos.

Concentrate on the evergreen aspects that you can convey visually, aspects that the audience can relate to and that you can easily expand in future projects. That way, you will get to a coherent concept that conveys a lot of information with minimal detail.

These sorts of concepts allow you to create different and memorable logos for years to come, without fear of plagiarising yourself. These unique logos will enrich your portfolio and attract more clients because they’re effective in associating the brand with a concept or an idea that the audience recognises immediately.

Still sounds complicated or too good to be true? Here are some practical tips:

How to use metaphors and symbols

We’ve seen so far that including symbols and metaphors in your logos is a great way to enhance communication between the brand and the audience. You’ll create a straight line between these two, which translates into a meaningful relationship and customer loyalty.

To get there, the bond between the logo and the brand it represents must be equally strong. All the design elements that relate to colours, textures, and fonts can be changed with time, but the symbolic essence of your logo that represents the brand’s identity should be immutable.

That sounds amazing, but still doesn’t answer the question of how you do it, right?

Make an archive and check it twice (or as many times you need to)

When working on a logo or any other kind of idea, people tend to scribble something on a white piece of paper. And what do they do if it’s bad? Rumple it up and throw it away.

But that’s just a bad idea. Experienced logo designers know to save them – looking through previous ideas once in a while can help you to think outside the box. If something doesn’t work now, it can work later. If something doesn’t work for a client, it can work for another one.

Don’t work in colours

It’s a good idea to start sketching your logo using only black and white. If it looks good in those colours, it can fit any medium you can think of. You can also add more colours in the future.

But this has a symbolic reason. If your logo design is in black and white, the balance of positive and negative space will be more powerful, and more meaningful to the audience. Therefore, the symbolism of your logo will be defined better, which means the logo can help differentiate your brand better. In the end, your brand will gain the advantage of uniqueness over its competitors.

To make your logo design better, use empty space. This employs the closure gestalt principle, meaning that the audience’s attention is directed without the use of particular shapes.

Design a scalable logo

If you design it as a vector, your logo will be flexible enough so that you can scale it problem-free. Logos are an essential element in your brand’s identity, so you need to use them on versatile mediums.

Your logo should be able to work in the tiniest of sizes on the company’s website or blog, but should also look good on a huge billboard. Regardless of the medium, the logo has to be easy to read. If your logo isn’t legible in minuscule sizes, take the chance and cut back on any unnecessary information.

Balanced configuration

Look at your logo from every direction and configuration, and make sure it’s balanced. This is a good way to make sure you get rid of any imperfections that aren’t easy to notice when you look at the logo the normal way – balance is essential for both aesthetically pleasing logo designs and website designs. This allows you to use the logo in other branding applications, including a repeating background.

Think outside the box

Thinking outside the box can help you find more creative solutions faster. It enables a logo designer to improve their instincts and intuition on various levels.


You need to think about problems as opportunities, not as impediments. Thanks to problems, you learn to become more creative, and you improve your problem-solving abilities. It also helps you learn more about yourself and become aware of the steps you’re taking to finding that solution.

To do this, you need to:

  • Start by drawing the problem. It can be an abstract or realistic representation, but the point is to showcase your particular way of viewing the problem.
  • Accept any outside help with the problem and be open to any new way of seeing the problem. In short, be open to every solution.
  • Be aware of your surroundings, your personal life, even your dreams. Watch what happens when you ignore the problem you need to solve. If an idea or image occurs constantly, notice it, and write it down.
  • Analyse all possible connection between this recurring idea/image and your problem. Does it arouse any emotions? Which emotions are these? What is the connection between this image, the problem, and you? Does this relationship remind you of something from your past?
  • Sometimes you can’t solve a problem because of a completely unrelated issue. That’s why you need to pay attention to what your subconscious wants to tell you. Keeping a state of awareness will help you interpret your relationship with the current problem. From this interpretation, the solution will emerge.


Designing a logo is as taxing as it is fulfilling. A good logo should be simple, effective, and memorable. A good logo is evergreen and teaches you out-of-the-box thinking. That’s why the best logo design is based on informed intuition that harnesses the power of metaphors and symbols.

For more information on how logo design can work for your business, contact our Melbourne web design team.