Symbols and Visual Cliches

idea light bulb cliches

Say you want to make a logo - or for that matter any kind of art. You're dreaming up a symbol. You're keen to be creative and original... but all you can think of are cliches.


Despised by designers, visual cliches are avoided like the plague. (...Sorry! There goes a verbal cliche.)

Visual cliches are shunned by most self-respecting artists and designers. Should you avoid them too?

Sometimes you can be a bit too original. Cliches would not be so popular if they didn't 'say it in a nutshell'.

Used long enough, visual cliches get worn down to bare essentials, become respectable and enter the visual language as symbols.

By that time, the objects they represent have often gone out of date!

This phone is a Windows Wingdings symbol. You probably have the font on your computer. It appears in many icon sets, but you don't see many telephones around like that these days!

The old style receiver even takes the stage as the Phone icon on my shiny new smartphone, a Samsung Galaxy Note! You'll find that same outdated handpiece engraved on the keys of other phones.

Old style telephone talk has even got into our language. You can still be exhorted to 'Dial this number' - even though you might have to pop into the nearest museum to find a rotary dial. The phrase 'Hang up'; goes back even further, to Edwardian times when you had to hang the earpiece on a hook.

It's no coincidence that many symbols look like pictures from the story books we had when first we were learning about the world. You may have learned to recognise a crocodile, say, from a drawing or cartoon, before you saw a real one. If you ever did. Those pictures become part of our visual vocabulary. They often have a lot of power because they key into our deepest memories.

In the banner above I used a wishing well to symbolise a modern well. (The banner advertises water purification systems for wells. Sulphur contaminated water smells of bad eggs.) I could have shown a more up-to-date well, but it might not have been so widely recognised, at least in the Western world.

Home icon

You'll probably recognise the Home icon. Chimneys aren't always needed in a modern home. Yet they often appear in the symbol for a house - even in children's drawings.

With the rapid advance of technology, other computer icons are fast going out of date. Do you still use floppy disks like the Windows symbol for 'Save'? Hmmm. Old style aluminium dustbins, the sort with clangy lids, are often used as 'Bin It'; signs.

Just as verbal cliches can grow to be part of the language, visual cliches can become so well worn that they turn into writing. Think of Egyptian heiroglyphics or Chinese.

The art of creating a good icon, logo or other symbol is to use the communication power of an old familiar image - yet still present it in a new and original way.

(c) Valerie Beeby 2000 - 2015

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