Arguably (well, I’d argue) there aren’t many things that should be closer to a designer’s (and especially a graphic designer’s) heart that an appreciation, verging on an obsession, of symbolism – or rather more specifically, symbols and their manifold meanings.

The intention, covert or otherwise, of a deliberate inclusion of something symbolic within a form or format is the stuff that graphic design (and before, commercial art, and before that the decorative arts) is so primal to the exercise that it’s almost impossible to extract whether the intention was purposefully or happily accidental.

I say this as I just got hold of a copy of ‘The Book of Symbols. Reflections on Archetypal Images’ (published by Taschen) and what a lovely tour de force it is.

Guessing that most of us will have a fairly well-stocked library (whether physical or Pintesteral. Is that a thing? Feels like it should be) of things that document examples of symbolism, this is a pretty amazing gather-up and – delightfully – has examples that are new to me (like ‘Dew’). Which is exactly what a really good compendium should do. It feels like wandering through an amazingly old-fashioned museum where the exhibits jostle together to surprise and shock.

Not that this is a scatological assembly. The ‘exhibits’ here are organised into really appealing and useful categories with the added appeal that supporting texts and references are not merely historical but also cultural – so there’s poems and prose. The whole thing is densely woven without falling into academic obscurity. Apologies to the academics. No slight intended but this does leave all kinds of paths open to explore in greater depth and toward you.

I know I’ve taken a pop recently at the archetype (in relation to late C.19th models appropriated by brands) but here there’s a richness only the scope can convey – that meaning-making and the search for the form of expression (and in execution – from stone to woodblock, paint to print) provides an astonishing well of inspiration to draw from.

Tl:dr? If you’re a graphic designer (in the widest sense), this book will make you a better one.

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About Richard Hill

Creative director, writer, designer, illustrator based in the UK with global project experience and consulting skills across sectors.

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