The increasing complexity of symbols

Once upon a time, the signs around us referred to known things like natural phenomena. And symbols were given specific things. Today it has become much more complicated, but also more interesting. When we dress in the morning we choose attributes, statements and stories for ourselves and others to see.

Symbols and other signs not only refer to specific things, they increasingly refer to each other! One example, the Trygg-Hansa rescue ring:

  • The red and white fields form the symbol of a rescue ring – these were not given but have been chosen and decided by man
  • Its colours and shape form a gestalt that can be used as an icon in other areas, for example computer virus protection (the icon depicts the object)
  • The size of the hole, big enough for fitting a person, might be seen as an index
  • The combination of our understanding that this is a floating device for rescue, and that it actually also works as such makes this an affordance
  • This understanding is further enhanced by the marine context, and as this view looks the same now as it did a long time ago, when this rescue ring appeared, it may also evoke a certain amount of nostalgia
  • This symbol, referring to the rescue ring, is a part of the logotype of Trygg-Hansa, a Swedish insurance company. It expresses safety.
  • Trygg-Hansa also provides rescue rings, like this one. You can say it’s a part of their functional business model – if people are rescued, less costs for Trygg-Hansa.
  • Rescue rings with the Trygg-Hansa logotype, like this one, also refer to the insurance company – so the symbol, the function and the brand actually refer to each other

I see this as a good example of the complexity in meanings and references in products and communication, today and tomorrow. We perceive them at different levels, without thinking about it, in different ways in different situations.

More and more things will be like this in the future. Complex but also fascinating. And companies must understand, not only their brand, but also the other levels of communication and meaning that concern what they do. Okay, let’s go!

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