We use thousands of symbols every day. We use them to communicate information and express emotions when we can’t find the words to describe our feelings. Symbols are pictures we use to tell stories, in business and life—and design.
In the design world, a symbol is a combination of graphic elements that can be used to represent a brand’s identity, communicating its story and influencing the way it is perceived by consumers.
But how often do we consider the origins behind the graphic symbols we see everyday?
In this article we’ll explore the history behind seven of the most widely-used graphic symbols. Understanding what a symbol is really all about can help you use it more strategically in your own work or in your company’s branding materials.
1. The ampersand
Designers can’t get enough of the ampersand (&).
They dedicate books, blogs and fonts to the pretzel-like symbol. In his book, Just My Type, Simon Garfield called an ampersand “a tirelessly entertaining character, perhaps an uncle with too many tricks.”
For designers, the symbol is an invitation to adventure, an opportunity to express creativity and play around. Tobias Frere-Jones nailed it in an article for Fast Company:
“The ampersand is a dinosaur. It should have gone extinct a long time ago but has survived nonetheless. Visually, it’s a loner … usually, letters help to form one another, by setting precedents and providing contexts, but the ampersand doesn’t receive any of that support. That makes it hard to draw but, at the same time, opens an unusually large window for experimentation and risk.”
Created by the Ancient Romans, the ampersand made its debut on a wall in Pompeii. It started out as a representation of the Latin word et, which translates to “and.” But the hard-to-write (seriously, try it) symbol didn’t receive its formal title of “ampersand” until the late 18th century when British schoolchildren began using it as the alphabet’s 27th letter after Z.
When children spoke the English alphabet, they added per se—a Latin phrase that translates to “by itself”—before letters that could be used as a word by itself, like A, and I. This looked like “A as per se,” and “I as per se” and so on.
Eventually, the & symbol would appear at the end of the alphabet. So they pronounced, “…X, Y, Z, and per se and,” which morphed into “…X, Y, Z, ampersand” for faster pronunciation.
2. The at symbol
Back in 1971, American computer programmer Ray Tomlinson, known as the inventor of email, sent the first electronic message, indicating a recipient’s location with the ubiquitous symbol (@).
Today, accounting and programming experts use the at symbol most frequently, but creative designers are right behind them.
There are three main theories of the origin of the @ symbol:
- It represents the Latin word “ad” meaning “toward.”
- It is born from the French word “à” meaning “at.”
- It is an abbreviation for “each at,” first documented in 1536 in Spain. Florentine merchant Francesco Lapi sent a letter from Seville to Rome, using the @ symbol to denote a unit of wine. “There, an amphora of wine, which is one-thirtieth of a barrel, is worth 70 or 80 ducats,” he wrote, representing the amphora with @.
Thanks to its unique shape, @ has many nicknames:
Strudel (Israel), monkey’s tail (Denmark), little duck (Greece), dog (Russia), snail (Italy), sleeping cat (Finland), worm (Hungary), rolled pickled herring (Czech Republic), mouse (China), and more.
3. The US dollar symbol
You may have heard that the dollar sign ($) was born from a monogram of the letters “U” and “S,” as in “United States.”
Well, you heard wrong.
The symbol comes from an abbreviation of “peso” aka “ps,” which first occurred in the 1770s when English-Americans had trading relations with the Spaniards. The name “dollar” comes from the old Bohemian currency—a thaler.
In design, the dollar symbol can represent national identity, physical currency or even the biblical story of the serpent.
4. The exclamation mark
The exclamation mark (!) comes from the Latin “io” meaning “hurray,” which is an classic way to express joy and wonder. To share strong sentiments on paper and save time on writing, the letter “i” was written above the “o.”
In the printing world, the exclamation mark has nicknames like “screamer,” “gasper” and, rather unfortunately, “dog’s cock.” Writers and journalists don’t like this punctuation mark much, arguing that it is overused and inefficient.
Many designers find the symbols to be versatile and nifty. Billboards, print ads, commercials, movie posters and websites have no qualms about using it. Even Google featured an exclamation mark in its logo back in 1999!
5. The hashtag
Sharp. Crosshatch. Mesh. Pound. Grid. Number. Flesh. Hex. Diamond. Square. Pig-pen. Octothorpe. Hash.
A symbol of many names is still the symbol we know and love: the hashtag (#).
The origin of the label “hash” is linked to the stripes that members of the military receive for every three years of service. They’re called “hash marks” and can be found on military jackets.
In the 1980s the # symbol began to be referred to as a “hash” and in 2007 Chris Messina, a former Google developer, used Twitter to suggest that people start grouping tweets or other social media posts on the same topic with #topic. After a bit of public grumbling, the symbol took off.
Then there’s “pound,” as on a telephone keypad. Here, Latin is at the root of things again. Pound is an abbreviation for “libra pondo” aka “pound of weight” in Latin. In writing, when the letters “l” and “p” are crossed, it can remind one of the # symbol.
And what’s with “octothorpe”? This time the etymology traces back to Old Norse, a North Germanic language from the 14th century. In Old Norse, “thorpe” translates to “field” or “farm.” Add “octo’ or “eight” and you have “eight fields” or “octothorpe.”
Today, the hashtag is widely used in memes, videos, conversation, social movements and design.
6. The infinity symbol
First introduced by English mathematician John Wallis in 1655, the infinity symbol continues to be widely used in physics, computer science and algebra often to represent a potential infinity rather than a quantity that is actually infinite.
But if you dig a little deeper, you’ll find that the symbol has ancient roots and deep meaning. In India and Tibet, infinity represents dualism and perfection, the balance between opposing forces and the unity of a man and a woman. In the 8th century, the infinity symbol became part of Saint Boniface’s cross, helping to promote Christianity all over the Frankish Empire (Western Europe today).
But the most ancient meaning of “infinity” goes to the Egyptian Ouroboros, an image of a snake eating its own tail—a not-so-subtle representation of the continual cycle of death and rebirth.
Yet some insist the symbol might be also have originated from the Greek letter Omega: Ω.
Graphic designers dig this ancient symbol, using it to communicate the ideas of eternity and harmony.
7. The heart symbol
The heart is one of the most widely used, some may say overused, symbols in graphic design. This now ubiquitous symbol was given new life after designer Milton Glaser donated—yes, he did it for free—his I Heart NY brand to struggling 1970s NYC.
Today it’s the most obvious symbol to represent love. And kindness, unity, affection and fidelity (among others).
There are many theories behind the heart’s origin. It is said to represent:
- The intertwined necks of two swans.
- The shape of ivy leaves, which are associated with fidelity.
- Aspects of the human body: a woman’s breasts and buttocks, a torso or even testicles.
- The human heart. Aristotle described a heart as three chambers and a small dent, scientists in the Middle Ages tried to represent it in medical texts by drawing it as we all do today.
Whatever the origin, most of us associate this symbol with love. We use it to mark favorite posts and photos on social media, we send it to our dearest and nearest on Valentine’s Day. It is the universal symbol worth a thousand words, so it never seems to become a cliche.
Symbols, now and forever
Symbols are everywhere, clamped firmly in our consciousness. We use them when words can’t do the job alone. They help us express emotion, communicate information, engage with our customers, or add personality to cold written messages. They are versatile—and clearly timeless, too.
About the author:
Lesley Vos is a web writer and contributor to Bid4papers and publications on business, lifestyle, and marketing. In love with design, travel, and foxes, she gets inspired by creative geniuses all around.