44 common symbols and meanings (and how to use them)
Because humans tend to look for meaning in everything around them, almost anything can become a symbol when interpreted as something other than its literal definition. That said, some symbols have consistent cultural meanings, making them universally significant. These symbols play a major role in all forms of communication and give more depth to otherwise incomplete messages.
As a graphic designer or marketer, it can benefit you to understand each symbol design and the most appropriate ways to use representations for the greatest impact. Once you know what you’re looking for, you can VistaCreate’s creative assets to find the right icons for your next project.
Symbol design and the human experience
Symbolism has been around since the dawn of civilization. Humans throughout the world and history have had the idea that certain images, colors or objects represent concepts that are greater than the literal meaning. For instance, in many cultures, white is a symbol of purity. Red is often a symbol of love or passion, while yellow is the color of hope and happiness.
Symbolism extends beyond colors to include shapes, animals, elements, and more. For instance, many cultures believe that the dove stands for peace, while the raven foretells death and disaster. Water often represents fertility, while its counterpart, fire, often signifies destruction. A heart may represent love, loyalty and kindness, while a star indicates magic and inspiration. To help you create more meaningful designs that spark the right associations in your audience, check out these 44 popular symbols with meaning.
Plant symbols from nature
For millennia, humans have looked to their surroundings for guidance and meaning. It’s no wonder that many things found in nature have become classic symbols recognized by people across the globe.
1. Rose – Love, romance, and more
Though Gertrude Stein once said, “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose,” if you are like most people, when you see a rose, you think of love and romance. After all, it’s hard not to when movies, TV shows, books, flower shops, artwork, photography, and other mediums routinely use roses as symbols of these qualities.
Of course, you must consider the context when deciphering the meaning of one or a bunch of roses. For example, the flower probably does mean love and romance when presented to a love interest or significant other. When the flower is red, this meaning becomes even more enhanced. However, what about when you give a bunch of yellow roses to a sick friend or blue roses to a recent graduate?
In these cases, the flower is likely to symbolize friendship, care, and well-being. In the traditions of the Catholic faith, roses have little to do with love and romance. Rather, they represent the rosary and Virgin Mary. In England, a rose represents the nation and the War of the Roses.
2. Forest – Mysteries of the unknown
As a symbol for graphic design, trees typically indicate life, fertility or environmental protection, or concerns. However, a group of trees — that is, a forest — often represents mysteries of the unknown and the unconscious.
Think about it: Films and TV shows often use forestry footage to foreshadow danger and doom, or to elicit fear or mystery. This is because it’s difficult for the human brain to anticipate what to expect around the next branch or tree, and people often fear what they do not know and cannot predict.
The force and wonder of natural elements encompass a wide spectrum of emotions for humans. This list of symbols and their meanings may prove useful in targeting the feeling you are hoping to portray in your design.
3. Fire – Destruction, anger, punishment
Fire has many different meanings across the world and throughout cultures, so for this symbol to come across as intended, you must give it context. Fire is a symbol as old as time, as it is a natural element and one that has greatly shaped the development and spread of human civilizations.
➡️ Check out the Fire color palette by VistaCreate.
The most obvious meanings of fire as a symbol are destruction, fear, pain, punishment, and anger. Long before and long after humans discovered ways to harness this element, fire has had the power to destroy entire communities and regions. Individuals who have lost homes or loved ones to raging infernos may view the fire symbol as a warning of danger ahead.
On the other hand, many cultures believe that fire is a symbol of knowledge and wisdom. This is why so many religious and tribal groups use fire as a means of trying to see into the future or seek answers.
In still other societies, fire is a sign of renewal and rebirth. In fact, even in places where fire has destroyed homes, communities and regions, residents understand that fires must happen to “cleanse” and make way for new life. A more symbolic representation of this concept is the phoenix, which is a mystical bird that ignites itself only to come back from its ashes stronger and more beautiful.
4. Water – Life, fertility, cleansing
Water, like fire, is a natural element. Also, like fire, it has influenced the development and spread of civilizations since the beginning of time. However, unlike fire, it has, more often than not influenced development in positive ways.
Because people need water to survive, most cultures view water as a symbol of fertility, birth and life. It is also not uncommon for people to see water icons and instantly think of refreshments. As a symbol for marketing, in fact, water icons are some of the most commonly used.
Historically, water also represents cleansing. Because people bathe in water to wash away sweat, dirt, soil, and other impurities, cultures tend to associate water with purity. This is evident in many churches’ traditions of baptism, which they conduct to purify the soul of all past and future sins.
Finally, many people associate water with power and obstacles. Though water gives life, it also takes life away. Powerful storm surges such as hurricanes, tsunamis, and floods sweep in and destroy whole regions. For this reason, cultures tend to view water with reverence. Even when water is peaceful, people and animals tend to struggle to get across it. This is particularly true of raging rivers and oceans, both of which many civilizations regard with the utmost respect.
5. Rain/Thunderstorms – Sadness, ominousness, loneliness, purification
People tend to associate bodies of water with life.
When it comes to rain and thunderstorms, however, water takes on an entirely different meaning.
It is not uncommon for filmmakers, writers, and artists to use rain to communicate less-positive feelings such as sadness, loneliness, pessimism, dreariness, and gloominess. Many artists also use rain and thunderstorms as indicators of impending doom or as tools for foreshadowing.
Given the right context, however, rain can symbolize purification and new beginnings. Many movies and books use rain to set the mood after a character has overcome hardship or gone through a major transformation, which speaks to humans’ belief that new beginnings are just a rainstorm away.
6. Sun – Life, power, vision, foresight, glory, self
The sun is the brightest thing in the sky and as such is the ultimate symbol of power, confidence, positivity, clarity and life. Because it truly is ever present, and because the sun literally sustains life (and possesses the power to take it away), cultures have revered the sun for as long as they’ve been around. In fact, the Egyptians believed the sun was their connection to several of their gods, including Ra and Horus.
Depending on the context, people often perceive the sun to be a symbol of energy, glory, foresight, and vision. Because sunshine brings positive feelings into a person’s life, many people associate our star with good vibes and happiness. Rarely do people ever associate the sun with negative thoughts or ideas.
As the center of the solar system, the sun can also stand for the true self. Designers may use the sun to represent the soul or one’s innermost self.
7. Moon – Time, eternity, femininity
Because the moon goes through phases, it represents other concepts and entities that also go through cycles. For many, the moon symbolizes time, immortality, and eternity, as the lunar phases clearly delineate the passage of time. However, though the moon disappears, it always comes back, giving the impression that time is cyclical and eternal.
Depending on who you ask, the moon possesses several other symbolic meanings. These include the human lifecycle, the passage of time, the subconscious mind, the balance between light and dark, astrology, emotions, and love.
8. Crescent – New beginnings
As the crescent moon leads in turn to a new moon, this particular shape signifies new beginnings in symbol design. Many people and cultures believe that crescent moons indicate the point at which dreams are on the verge of becoming reality. In some contexts, a crescent moon also indicates immortality and rebirth.
9. Planets – Love, beauty, life, reason
Just as the sun and moon hold great symbolic significance, so, too, do each of the planets. The meaning of each planetvaries from culture to culture, but per astrology, each has a distinct pull on us.
Below is a brief overview of what each planet is used to represent in the human psyche:
- Mercury: Communication, internal dialogue, routine
- Venus: Love, relationships, beauty, finances
- Mars: Physical motivation
- Jupiter: Luck, fate, adventure
- Saturn: Structure, purpose, identity
- Uranus: Innovation
- Neptune: Inspiration
- Pluto: Rebirth
10. Stars – Magic, inspiration, spirituality
Stars have several symbolic meanings, which vary between cultures and context. One of the more literal significances of stars is physical distance, given that most stars are celestial bodies that humans cannot see with the naked eye. Building on this, manypeople also associate stars with emotional distance, misunderstanding and journeys.
On the other end of the spectrum is the association of stars with magic, hope, dreams and wishes. If you ever find yourself wishing on a star, you know this symbol. The relation between stars and magic is prevalent in many places, evident by the star-studded robes and hats that feature in wizards’ and magicians’ clothing, as well as movies like Pinocchio.
Earlier cultures associated stars with the struggle between light and dark, and between the material and spiritual worlds. Such beliefs were prevalent long before advancements in science and astronomy occurred and before humans could truly comprehend the nature of the galaxy and cosmic bodies.
11. Light – Purity, clarity, enlightenment, immortality
Many people and artists use the concept of light and brightness in symbol design to communicate enlightenment. Enlightenment can come in many forms, including but not limited to knowledge, insight, goodness, clarity and purity.
People often associate light with life and joy. Many religions also use light as a symbol of higher power and immortality. For example, in Judaism, a cloud of light represents the presence of Yahweh.
12. Darkness – Evil, unknown, negativity
As the opposite of light, darkness represents the foiling of goodness or, in other words evil. Because humans cannot see in the dark, it also symbolizes the unknown, which generally has a negative connotation.
Darkness and lightness are the yin and yang of Mother Nature. As such, darkness represents everything that lightness does not, such as ignorance, hate and despair. In storytelling and in marketing, artists use the lack of light to communicate a lack of a clear vision, mysteries or an unwelcome transition to the afterlife.
13. Rainbow – Hope, new beginnings, fulfillment
A rainbow is, in the literal sense, the light after the darkness that is a storm. It makes sense, then, that many people view rainbows as symbols of hope, new beginnings, prosperity and fulfillment. Not only that, but many cultures and religions associate rainbows with luck. Take, for instance, the Celtic belief that gold lies at the end of the rainbow. This belief perpetuates the notion of prosperity and is suggestive of luck. Not only do Celtic peoples view rainbows as lucky, but so do Americans — particularly on St. Patrick’s Day.
In modern times, the rainbow has been adopted as a symbol of LGBT+ rights and interests.
Animals have many characteristics that have placed them front and center in stories throughout time. These same meanings carry through in the symbol logo design used for many brands and products today.
14. Dove – Peace, tranquility, grace, unity
The dove has served as one of the most famous symbols of peace for centuries, if not millennia. As early as the third century, Christian artwork began to depict the dove as a sign of peace in conflicts, such as that between Daniel and the lions or Noah and the ark. In many of these depictions, the dove was a sign of civil peace, but many cultures view it as a symbol of internal peace as well. For instance, in many world religions, including Judaism and Christianity, doves represent grace and divinity.
The dove is such a universal sign of peace that many societies have adopted it. Today, you may find doves used in anti-war and anti-violence campaigns.
The bird is also a poster animal for the Olympic games, which has become a means of promoting international peace and cooperation.
If you hope to communicate harmony, serenity, unity, or peace via symbol design, your best bet may be to use the dove.
15. Owl – Wisdom, mystery, magic
For centuries, cultures have associated the owl with knowledge and wisdom. While this association largely stems from the fact that Athena, the Greek goddess of learning, always had an owl accompany her, society has since perpetuated the notion via film, writing, and other artworks. A popular series that uses the owl as a symbol of knowledge is the children’s book series “Winnie the Pooh.”
Not only do owls represent wisdom, but in many cultures, they symbolize mystery, magic, and even death. For instance, to many Native American tribes, the owl is associated with supernatural phenomena and death because of its nocturnal existence. For the same reasons, many early European civilizations believed that owls were sorcerers in disguise or at least keepers of sorcerers’ secrets.
Depending on the context in which you use an owl, the creature is a strong symbol for graphic design. This is particularly true when you use an owl to represent intelligence, wisdom, or a lesson one needs to learn.
16. Raven – Death, disaster
The raven holds an ominous meaning in many cultures, being a black bird that feeds on corpses. In addition to being a widespread symbol of death, the raven also signifies doom and impending death. A famous example of the raven’s use as a tool for foretelling disaster is in Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven.” If you need a symbol for marketing that communicates doom and despair, the raven, or its close cousin the crow, can impart these more negative connotations.
17. Butterfly – Transformation
If you’re looking for symbols evoking ideas of transformation, the butterfly may prove the most effective. Because of its evolution from a fuzzy caterpillar to a vibrant, winged creature, the butterfly is a prominent symbol of positive change and transformation, both internal and external.
In many cultures, it is believed that the butterfly is a visitor from the other side, a sign of the possibility of life after death. Director James Cameron alludes to this in the movie “The Titanic” with Rose’s butterfly hair comb, which is the only item she wears when she decides to “break free,” so to speak, of the cocoon of her engagement to Cal, a man for which she has nothing but ill feelings.
18. Lion – Royalty, authority, strength
The lion, often referred to as “The King of the Jungle” or “The King of the Beasts,” is a symbol that has many powerful connotations. In addition to representing power itself, the lion communicates royalty (hence, its place in heraldry), strength, valor, stateliness, nobility and courage.
19. Swan – Balance, grace, beauty, music
In ancient Greece, the swan was a sacred animal to Aphrodite, the goddess of sexual love and beauty. Because of this role, many cultures associate this white waterfowl with those two traits. Because of the swan’s graceful appearance, many also view the swan as a symbol of balance and grace.
In addition to its relation to Aphrodite, the swan was also sacred to Apollo, the god of music. Per Greek mythology, the mute swan sang only in the moment before it died. This final song, according to lore, was the most beautiful a swan could sing. This belief perpetuated the connection between swans and music, even though swans cannot actually sing.
20. Wolf – Freedom, guardianship, loyalty
Along with eagles, wolves epitomize freedom and independence. This is because they roam through the wilderness, encumbered by nothing and no one.
Though wolves are symbols of independence, the truth is that canines are fiercely loyal creatures. When they mate, they mate for life. When they have a family unit, they stick with that unit, and protect them, for the duration of their lives. For this reason, as well as their role as the ancestor of dogs, the wolf is also a symbol of loyalty and guardianship.
21. Spider – Power, growth, mystery
Though some people fear spiders, they are a useful symbol for graphic design.
Many cultures view spiders as signs of growth and mystery. A spider’s ability to spin elaborate webs from seemingly thin air also makes these eight-legged critters representative of humans’ ability to construct their own realities through their decisions.
22. Rabbit – Fertility, vulnerability
Perhaps the greatest example of the rabbit’s role as a symbol of fertility is the Easter bunny. Though from where exactly the tradition of a giant egg-giving rabbit originated remains unclear, theorists suspect that it has its roots in the festival of Eostre. This festival is an ancient pagan tradition that honored Eostre, the goddess of fertility. Per the folklore, the goddess’s animal symbol was the rabbit, likely because of the animal’s high reproductive rate.
In addition to representing fertility, the rabbit also communicates vulnerability. The reasons behind this are less ambiguous: the rabbit is a vulnerable rabbit and prey to many a predator, including some like the weasel even smaller than it.
23. Peacock – Confidence, self-expression, awakening, grace
With its ostentatious feathers and propensity to show them off, the peacock is an obvious symbol of self-confidence and self-expression. Moreover, because of its beauty, many people associate peacocks with grace. Finally, for the eye-shaped patterns on itsfeathers, peacocks symbolize in many cultures a spiritual awakening.
24. Egg – Birth, life, resurrection
Simply for what they are, eggs are a universal symbol of life and birth. Many religions, including Christian-based ones, also view the egg as a symbolof resurrection, evident in the Easter holiday tradition of hiding eggs.
Some of the most popular symbols for supernatural power and fantasy include characters from stories and myths.
25. Witches – Evil, darkness
A well-known character, the witch is a universal symbol of evil and darkness. Though historically speaking, witches were simply “wise women” who dabbled or specialized in natural medicines and healing remedies, they at some point in history became sorely misunderstood. When they did, people, particularly those of religious persuasion, began to view their knowledge as “the Devil’s work,” claiming that it was unnatural to try to “force” change. From that point on, witches went from being revered healers who specialized in naturalremedies to evil pariahs who called upon the spirits and created magic spells. Since then, witches have yet to shake that reputation and for the time being bear the reputation of darkness, cast as the villain in well-known fairy tales and Halloween celebrations.
26. Dragons – Power, wisdom, luck, magic
A mythical beast, the dragon is one of the most revered symbols of luck and wisdom in Asian cultures. It also represents hidden knowledge and untapped potential.In other cultures, the dragon is not so sacred. In fact, in Christianity and other related religions, the dragon is an evil creature. In Western civilizations, the dragon embodies chaos and untamed power.
Because of these warring meanings, it is crucial to provide context when using the dragon in symbol design.
27. Angels – Divinity, goodness, guardianship
As ambassadors of the gods, angels represent all things good. In particular, many people view angels as their guardians or protectors. Many religions look upon angelic figures with reverence, considering them divine and holy creatures. It is difficult to take an angel out of context, making it a fairly straightforward symbol for design purposes.
28. Demons – Basic desires, addictions, weaknesses, internal struggles
Whereas their counterparts angels require little interpretation, demons are more complex. Though you might assume that demons symbolize all things evil, many artists use depictions of demons to describe internal struggles or struggles with external vices, such as drugs and alcohol. It is rarer for artists to use demons in a literal sense.
29. Phoenix – Renewal, rebirth, immortality
The phoenix is a mythical bird that catches fire and re-emerges from its own ashes. This makes it a potent symbol of rebirth, renewal and even immortality. On a deeper level, the phoenix also symbolizes human resilience. Because the phoenix comes back stronger after each incineration, storytellers use the birds as symbols of inspiration to represent humans’ ability to not only overcome adversity but to reinvent themselves into braver, stronger and better beings.
Some types of symbols are as simple as basic shapes, used in everyday objects, signage, and architecture.
30. Cross – Spirituality, healing, wisdom
The cross is a universal symbol of Christianity and everything it stands for. Though in a literal sense the cross symbolizes Jesus’s victory over sin, it also signifies His values. Among others, crosses become symbolic items portraying forgiveness, healing, wisdom and spirituality. Given that Jesus arose from the dead after being crucified, the cross is also a symbol of resurrection.
The cross plays a major role in graphic design and marketing. For instance, the Red Cross utilizes a red cross as its iconic logo. Hospitals and other healthcare organizations also use a red cross to communicate where help is located.
31. Circle – Eternity, completion, wholesomeness
A circle never ends, hence its role as a symbol of eternity and constant movement in many cultures. Because a circle, by definition, must connect at all points, some people view it as a sign of completion and wholeness. For everything it signifies, the shape plays a significant role in many aspects of society, one of which is the wedding ring, which communicates eternal love and commitment to the wearer.
As a symbol for marketing, a circle is a common choice for brands. Brands that make this shape an integral partof their logo use it to communicate a commitment to excellence and longevity.
32. Triangle – Stability, power, unity
Since the dawn of civilization, the triangle has served as a symbol of utmost stability, power and enlightenment. This is evident in the appearance of pyramids across the globe and the shape’s prevalence in many spiritual symbols, including the philosopher’s stone, prism, chakra, dragon’s eye and trinity knot, to name a few.
33. Heart – Love, loyalty, valor
The most obvious and frequent use of the heart in symbolism denotes love. Possibly the first use of the heart as a proclamation of love comes from a 13th-century painting in which the artist depicts a suitor offering his heart to the woman of his desire.
However, the significance of the heart has evolved over time to include other kind gestures. For instance, many people use the heart emoji not to convey love but rather care, thoughtfulness or kindness. Many associate the heart with loyalty, while others construe it as a sign of valor.
Even simple symbols and meanings can be deepened when paired with carefully chosen words and color schemes. The following insignia spark innate understanding and feeling in many people, but let’s dive in a little deeper to examine them…
34. Arrow – Ambition, direction, progress
As a graphic designer, you may use the arrow frequently in your work – but what does this symbol mean? It likely gained its ubiquity in the modern world because of an actual arrow’s ability to fly straight and at a great distance when shot by a capable marksman. Today, arrows are everywhere and serve to direct your gaze and steer you in the right direction.
Arrows serve much more than a directional purpose, though. Many brands use arrows in their internal and external communications to symbolize progress, movement, and ambition. From charts to logos, brands cannot get enough of the arrow. In fact, some of the most recognizable logos utilize arrows both discretely and obviously, including Amazon, FedEx, In-N-Out, Delta, Chevron, Subway, Spearmint, and even the Avengers.
35. Flag – Pride, patriotism, valor
The meaning of the flag depends entirely on the colors it utilizes and its insignia.
However, most people and countries fly flags as symbolic objects to communicate pride, strength, and valor. For instance, supporters of the LGBT movement fly the rainbow flag to show unwavering pride in who they are and their choices. Country flags, on the other hand, demonstrate patriotism.
Beyond pride and patriotism, the colors of flags can communicate a country’s or group’s values.
For instance, some countries design their flags with red to represent valor, revolution, or blood loss. Yellow can communicate wealth, green fertility, and white harmony and peace. Because most countries are built on many beliefs, it is understandable that most country flags utilize three or more colors.
36. Peace Sign – Peace
As its name implies, the peace sign historically symbolizes peace. However, you may be surprised to learn the icon is not a product of the hippie movement but rather of a 1950s anti-weapons campaign. Though the hippies later adopted peace sign symbols as their official logo, the British originally developed it using a combination of the semaphore signals for the letters “N” and “D.” The final product became the logo for the British Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.
37. Skulls – Warning, dismay, dread
As the most recognizable bone in the human body, the skull has long been associated with death, dismay, and danger. In the early Middle Ages, European cultures used the skull, crossed with two long bones, to indicate death on tombstones.
Legend has it that this arrangement picked up a negative connotation in around 1120, when the church burned the last Grand Master of the Knights of the Templar alive and placed his skull and femurs upon his grave. It is this incident, legend asserts, that led to the development of the Jolly Roger. The Jolly Roger remained a popular symbol on pirate flags for centuries, until about 1400, when other, more intricate designs became popular.
Today, organizations across a variety of industries use the skull and crossbones to communicate different messages.
For instance, sports teams use the symbol to assert their dominance. Chemical companies use it on warning labels, and OSHA uses it on various safety signs to mark materials that are toxic or hazardous to human health.
38. Occult Symbols – Paranormal, unknown
The term “occult” means “unknown,” or “hidden,” and refers to anything with supernatural qualities. It makes sense, then, that symbols of the occult exist to signify something not of this world. Though there are many, some of the most common and easily identified occult symbols include the pentagram, all-seeing-eye, and ankh.
Such symbols are popular among many sects, including but not limited to Christianity, Catholicism, Wiccanism, Neo-Paganism, and satanism. Many people associate the occult with witchcraft.
In a digital world, tech icon symbols and meanings are becoming more consistent, making them powerful tools for communication in visual assets.
39. Speech bubble – Speech
The speech bubble icon indicates exactly what you would think —that someone is speaking. Typically, graphic designers use this symbol in drawings of cartoon humans or animals. As well, brands use speech bubbles in their logos, educators use them to communicate new ideas or overreaching concepts, and designers can use them simply to emphasize important information or exclamations.
40. Lightbulb/Brain – Idea, innovation, thinking
Marketers often use lightbulbs and brain icons to communicate innovation, critical thinking, and new ideas. Though the symbolism behind the icons is not necessarily interchangeable, brands typically use them as such and may even combine them in the same graphic.
41. Shield – Security, protection
The shield logo is one of the most iconic and commonly used in technology and eCommerce. This icon indicates that a site, system or software is secure. Depending on the context, the shield may warn users away from a site, system, or software. In a latter instance, the shield may be surrounded by red and flashing.
42. Mind map – Main idea, innovation
A mind map symbol is another symbol of innovation. Unlike with a lightbulb or brain, however, the icon tells the viewer to do more than innovate — it tells them to start flushing out an idea and figuring out how to bring it to life. It is common for brands to use mind maps in internal communications more than in their marketing materials.
43. Gear – Thinking, progress, innovation
The gear symbol epitomizes the cogs of a wheel, clock, or other moving component and typically represents hard work, thinking, and progress. You may use a gear icon in internal communications or materials designed to advertise seminars or workshops.
44. Wi-Fi – Internet Access
The Wi-Fi symbol may be the most prevalent and seemingly most revered symbol in today’s day and age. As you well know, the Wi-Fi symbol indicates the existence of internet access that makes almost all other digital processes possible, including graphic design.
Your one-stop shop for symbol design
Humans can find symbolic meaning in just about anything, from ravens to rainbows, from speech bubbles to skulls. Symbols are a major communication component and emphasize key ideas and create meaningful connections.
If you’re making a graphic design, it’s critical to your success that you have access to any symbol you could require. VistaCreate has the library you need to find symbols representing yourself and your brand.
Use our extensive vector library to create a design today.