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See the world’s oldest emoji in this new archive of 650 ancient symbols

A new project catalogues hundreds of icons, making it easier for contemporary designers to use them.

See the world’s oldest emoji in this new archive of 650 ancient symbols
[Image: courtesy Michela Graziani]

Today, we are bombarded with a never-ending stream of images and logos and symbols. In this time of overstimulation, how do you create symbols that stand out? One designer is looking to the past for inspiration. A new project aims to catalogue hundreds of ancient symbols, drawn from long-gone civilizations like the Mayans, the ancient Egyptians, and the Aztecs, as well as present-day indigenous communities, like the Maori in New Zealand and the Lakota Sioux in North America.

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[Image: courtesy Michela Graziani]

The archive, dubbed the Symbolikon Digital Encyclopedia, was created by the Rome-based visual designer Michela Graziani, who spent three years researching the more than 650 symbols that appear on a digital website. The symbols are organized into 25 categories, like Celtics, Astrology, Hopi, and Sacred Geometry, and tagged with descriptors, so that designers who are looking for inspiration can type in something like “rebirth” or “love” and see a list of different symbols spanning continents and cultures that are related to those ideas. To gather the symbols, Graziani says she read a host of books and conferred with anthropologists, historians, designers, and authors to ensure that the archive is accurate (however, she did not consult with representatives of indigenous groups).

[Image: courtesy Michela Graziani]

“Everywhere, civilizations of every kind have created symbols to communicate in an instant way,” Graziani says. “They are archetypes of visual communication. As a graphic, visual designer, if you have a strong knowledge of symbolism, you can make something that will be meaningful.”

Take, for instance, the modern-day symbol for Bluetooth, which was developed by the Swedish company Ericsson. It’s named after a Viking king who was known for being an excellent communicator. His last name, Blatand, means bluetooth, and the symbol we all know today is an amalgam of the Nordic runes for his initials. It’s a design that references the past to create an easily recognizable symbol that can now be found on every smartphone.

[Image: courtesy Michela Graziani]

For Graziani, this kind of symbolic usage is exactly what she has in mind for the Symbolikon. To make it easier for designers to use, she has created four versions of each symbol: a bold, black one, a line drawing, an outline, and a version that’s meant to be colored in (users will be able to select a color on the site before downloading).

Graziani is selling the symbols in multiple formats and under a commercial license, so they can be used in any context—a model that could potentially go awry. After all, a hypothetical startup should not be using a Lakota symbol to represent their project management tool unless they want to offend current members of the tribe and be accused of cultural appropriation. “I don’t want to take anything from other cultures that is not what they want to show,” she says. “The idea is to preserve what our ancestors made and to put it together into a collection, with its appropriate meaning.” She hopes that people who sign up to use the archive will treat the symbols with respect.

Graziani is currently funding Symbolikon through Kickstarter, where people can pledge $28 to receive full access to the library and a license to download and use the symbols.

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About the author

Katharine Schwab is an associate editor based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture. Email her at kschwab@fastcompany.com and follow her on Twitter @kschwabable

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