Symbolism & The Art of Leveraging Intuition to Build Character

Let’s start with intuition. What we usually refer to as intuition is our ability to understand something immediately without the need for conscious reasoning. We do this by taking all of our past knowledge on a subject, and then quickly coming up with a generalized idea. Humans tend to be really good at this and depending on the situation, it can be really good or really bad. Good because we can access information quickly; Bad because we overgeneralize.

For more information on this, I highly recommend reading Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman (no really, it’s an awesome book).

What this means is that we make powerful associations with certain imagery almost instantaneously. Without realizing it, we have cultivated a visual lexicon of symbols and visual shorthands that are utilized for communication every day. Though most people in our society are literate, the same principles that were used to create cathedrals for the illiterate masses are still being used today.

The next thing to note is that some symbols/imagery carry more weight than others. To illustrate, let’s look at a widely used icon that doesn’t carry much weight:

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In our tech savvy society, it’s pretty much universally understood that this is the symbol for “save”. However, the reason this symbol doesn’t carry much weight is because its meaning is not firmly rooted in our history of human experiences. Many people don’t always associate the act of saving with technology, and to make things worse, this particular piece of technology is obsolete. With the passing of time, the association between icon’s image and its meaning become further and further distanced.

That doesn’t necessarily mean the save icon is bad, but it is a good illustration of how not all iconography are created equal. Though it works for a certain context, weak associations can cause it to easily become irrelevant and age badly. Other examples of visual short hands that don’t carry much weight also include stereotypes (ex: Asian means smart) and marketing trends (ex: blue means boy).

So what are some examples of symbols that do carry a lot of weight? To look for the titans of iconography, we have to study the stories that weathered the tests of time: Myths and folktales. 

When you start to study myth and folktales, you can see similarities in the way symbols are used throughout different cultures. That’s because the most powerful symbols tend to be rooted in a universality of the human condition.

  • Water = life/rebirth
  • Red = blood/danger/valor
  • Flowers = youth/beauty
  • etc… so many…

What makes these strong symbols are not just the fact that their meanings are closely tied to their image (I’m bleeding… red = danger!). It’s also the sheer number of times the color red has been used in the same symbolic manner that reinforces its emotional meaning. A symbol can be used often because they have strong associations, and because it has a backlog of uses that span an entire culture’s history. This is another reason why many symbols that have a lot of weight are typically found in old tradition.

Here are two really great resources for studying themes that run across cultures: The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell for mythology, and World Tales by Idries Shah for folktales.

Now that we’ve seen symbols on either side of the weight spectrum, let’s see how symbols, both light and heavy, can be utilized to create character.

As an example, let’s look at some of the most popular characters in modern society: pop stars. Using music and image as their primary channels, pop stars embody an image or character that is used as a shorthand for a concept/aspect of life. (Kind of reminds me of Greek mythology honestly). One notable example that I’ll be talking about is Beyonce.

So how is Beyonce branded? You are free to disagree with how successful her team was in accomplishing this, but I would argue that Beyonce is used as a symbol for “diva”, “pride”, “strength”, and other similar concepts. And now look at this image:

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Nothing says powerful like a queen does. Alright, let’s break this down. Though not quite a part of her character design, it’s important to note how she’s lit in this picture. Around her, we can see a halo (I can see your halo~… hahhh…). A halo is one of the oldest tricks in the book to denote a holy figure. Could there possibly be one that also has deep blue flowing cloth draped around her? One that works perfectly in order to symbolize strength and femininity? How about the Virgin Mary?

From here, we can start working our way through other symbols like gold and jewels signifying wealth and royalty, as well as the visual commentary of a black woman in the role of a European queen. I also want to make a note of the light weight symbols that didn’t make the cut. Notice that the blue of the Virgin Mary (and royalty) won over blue signifying “boy”. Also how gold and jewelry signifying royalty won out over it being gaudy.

To make clear, I’m not saying that Beyonce wants to replace the Virgin Mary. I’m not even saying that her team did any of this consciously. Like I said, symbolism is the art of leveraging intuition. The reason her design is so compelling is because we (including her design team) have seen imagery, like the Virgin Mary, used in a particular way many many times. We’ve internalized it, and having imagery that’s associated with that deep backlog of experiences is powerful. By utilizing and recombining imagery, you can communicate on a deep emotional level instantaneously using a visual language that’s been used for literally all of human history.

And with that, I’ll end with an excellent video by Nerdwriter1 about the multiplicity of symbols in Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth. Thanks for reading!

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