Icons – The Visual Metaphors Of Our Culture

Ever wondered what could be the primary cause of our childhood fascination with cartoons? I did. Tons of times in fact. With little success very often.  Thankfully for me Scott McCloud in Understanding Comics gives a clear and a straightforward explanation for that.

Understanding Comics Pg 36

(Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics, Pg 36)

Essentially, he posits,  the mental picture that we we have of ourselves is simple and basic . Therefore, we are able to project ourselves into the ‘simple character’ but not the ‘complex one’.

The obvious lesson here that is applicable to advertising could be – if you want your audience to feel like they are the main character, make sure the character isn’t overly elaborate and detailed.

The classic iPod ads of 2001  have smartly taken this theory a step further by featuring just a set of male and female silhouettes.


(Image Source)

This abstraction of pictures from reality to icons is thus a powerful mode of expression that comics (and comic artists) have deliberately and meaningfully perfected over the years.  For, after all, (visually) quoting Scott..

Understanding Comics Pg 59

(Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics, Pg 59)

“There is no life in an icon except that which you give to it.”

While this insight forms the cornerstone of what constitutes the vocabulary of comics, it lends a very powerful commentary  that is relevant for our practical lives too. Let me explain.

Just like we are said to be exposed to thousands of marketing/ brand impressions per day, I’d wager that we are also exposed to as many (if not more) iconic impressions each day. While a brand’s logo – by definition – could also be called as an ‘icon’, my focus here is more on icons that constitute the typical signage/symbols that we are used to seeing all around us each day – e.g.,  traffic signage, safety signage, industrial signage, traveler signage etc.


(DOT Pictograms)

Since these signage icons have been around for years, most of us grow up intuitively accepting them as part of our unspoken language. Thereby they practically end up becoming the visual metaphors of our culture.

Armed with this insight – The Accessible Icon Project was born with a goal to  show a more humanized depiction of the differently abled in the International Symbol of Access.

Symbol of Access

I’ll let you read a comprehensive account of the project here, but the highlight of this guerrilla art project was that it succeeded in reorienting the visual focus of the symbol from the chair to the person, while replacing the rigid, static representation with something more dynamic and active.

Result: The idea has been gaining tremendous momentum around globally as we speak, with NYC becoming one of the first cities in the world to formalize and adopt this new symbol with many disability organizations around the world vehemently following suit.

Metaphors are said to have the power of influencing our ideas, challenging assumptions and creating new world views. And if a picture is worth a thousand words, the power of a visual metaphor like this new ‘access icon’ above can be said to be amplified a thousand fold in shaping our collective biases, informing our cultural opinions and influencing our societal attitudes as humanity.

That’s when things get interesting. Symbolically and literally.


3 thoughts on “Icons – The Visual Metaphors Of Our Culture

  1. That’s brilliant, Chaithu! I cann’t agree with you more!
    One of the sayings I am reminded , most of the times , in my musings as I keep observing people while I travel- that is my most tranquilling and blissful way of engazing myself without intruding into other’s rightful domains of peace- is,’ Even a mirror shows only what u think of yourself’- But, life taught me that a great teacher, an extremely sincere companion or your own auto suggestion can influence and alter what you see in that mirror- I know I am wandering away from the basic context of what you have been driving at. But I think that is the way we extend our thoughts and trasgress into terrains we never explored hitherto. I reflect on many scientific inventions, art forms and so on , and come to a paradoxic conclusion that people invent strange and extraordinary things , mostly, when they digress , go astray from their main pursuit, be it X-ray, benevelent bacteria, some of the dance forms, some melancholic symphonys of great musicians…Even when you see a dictionery u stumble upon some graceful words while looking for the meaning of a more mundane word. Even this thought of yours I happened to see while trying to book a ticket on irctc for your attha to koththagudem. How I wish I can digress eternally from these incipid jobs, to dwell more on my lazy musings, though it may not fetch me any thing, materialistically speaking…thanks for giving me an opportunity to drift from my trap, for a few minutes at least

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s