Symbols have long served as a way of communicating ideas. Before written language, cave art has told stories of early mankind as early as 70,000 BCE. Today, symbols are used across literature, social media and public places to quickly and easily share ideas that everyone can understand, no matter the language.
In graphic design, symbols continue to expand communication by creating a visual language. This list outlines some of the most common symbols and their meanings to inspire your next design project.
What Are Some Common Symbols and Their Meanings?
Some of the most common symbols and their meanings include:
- Heart (love, connection and fertility)
- Raven (bad omen, destruction, danger)
- Rose (love and romance)
- Dove (peace, freedom and divinity)
- Tree (life, fertility, family and wisdom)
These symbols are used across the globe and are almost universally understood. Keep reading to learn more about each of these common symbols and their meanings.
The heart symbol represents life and love. In an interpersonal sense, the heart represents affection, fertility and sex. On an individual level, the heart can represent the center of a person’s spirituality or soul.
- Find the icon: Feri Ulan Taufiq’s “User Interface” collection
Because of its dark color and scavenging diet, ravens are associated with death and ill will. They often represent a bad omen. However, ravens are also sometimes seen as prophetic voices on a hero’s journey.
- Find the icon: Imogen Oh’s “Horror” collection
Roses have different meanings associated with each color. A red rose represents love, affection and romance, while a yellow rose represents friendship. Blue roses are associated with mystery and white with purity or innocence.
Find the icon: Phạm Thanh Lộc’s “Flowers” collection
With their white plumage, doves are often associated with peace, freedom or love. Doves can also represent grace and divinity in spiritual contexts.
- Find the icon: Felipe Alvarado’s “La Paz” collection
Trees can symbolize life, fertility, growth and wisdom. The branched shape of trees mimics the branched charts used in genealogy, and so trees are often also associated with family.
- Find the icon: Ani Rofiqah’s “Tree” collection
Owls are often silent observers and onlookers, leading them to serve as a symbol of wisdom or intuition.
- Find the icon: Vectors Market’s “Owl Glyph” collection
In chivalric and Christian traditions, dragons symbolize evil, greed or danger. In Asian traditions, dragons symbolize supernatural wisdom or power.
- Find the icon: Eucalyp’s “Chinese New Year” collection
From caterpillar to chrysalis and beyond, butterflies symbolize change, growth and hope. In a spiritual sense, butterflies can symbolize a rebirth or new life.
- Find the icon: Bernd Lakenbrink’s “World Environment Day” collection
As natural pack animals, dogs make great companions and are even known as “man’s best friend.” Their deep bonds make them a symbol of loyalty, affection and family.
- Find the icon: Cuputo’s “Dog and Cat” collection
Foxes are famed for their cleverness in evading both hunters and large predators. This makes them a symbol of intelligence and cunning. Their impressive adaptability also leads them to be characterized as mischievous or sly. In some cultures, foxes are seen as omens of good luck.
- Find the icon: Bernd Lakenbrink’s “Animals” collection
What Are Universal Symbols and How Are They Used?
While common symbols are widely recognized, universal symbols are those specifically created to communicate across language boundaries. Whether on roadways or at airports, universal symbols make communication easier in an increasingly globalized world.
Arrows are universally seen as symbols of direction. Because of this, they are often used in public signage like maps, roadways or subway systems to help people navigate.
- Find the icon: Nawicon’s “Maps and Navigation” collection
While you may not recognize every flag, it’s easy enough to know that flags represent communities. This may be a noncentralized group, like the LGBTQ+ community, or a centralized group, like countries.
- Find the icon: Danil Polshin’s “National Flags” collection
Smartphones, computers and the internet have created a digitally connected world. With this increased connectivity comes a need for understanding across languages. Tech symbols like those for Wi-Fi, power or Bluetooth fill this need and have become universally recognizable.
- Find the icon: Baboon Designs’ “Wifi” collection; I cons’ “Power” collection; Mohammad Iqbal’s “Dashboard Icons” collection
14. Emojis and Social Media
With technology came increasingly text-based communications through social media channels or text messaging, leading to the need to communicate emotions without voice intonations or facial expressions. Emojis and social media reaction icons filled this need.
15. Social Signs
While tech connects the world digitally, travel by plane or boat connects the world physically. This leads to a need for physical signage that can communicate basic information across cultures. Wheelchair accessible, no smoking and restroom signage are just a few examples.
- Find the icon: Throwaway Icons’ “Flight” collection; Patrick Trouvé’s “Handicaps” collection; Farra Nugraha’s “Bathroom” collection
Whatever you’re communicating with your next project, our icon library can help you share your ideas universally by creating a visual language.
Enhance your design with free icons
Spiritual Symbols and Meanings
Spirituality is an important part of the human story. In an effort to connect with the divine and otherworldly, humanity created the following symbols to help tell that story.
Here are some of the most common spiritual symbols and their meanings.
Closely tied to the Christian tradition, the cross symbolizes a connection to the divine. It also represents facing personal burdens and finding healing.
- Find the icon: Vectors Market’s “Halloween Solid Icons” collection
Necessary for life, water represents vitality and birth. Some creation stories cite a primordial birth out of water, as in the Egyptian tradition. With both rain and spiritual baptisms, water is also an important symbol for cleansing.
- Find the icon: Felix Brönnimann’s “Sea” collection
Like the pentagram used to protect against evil forces, occult symbols represent taking a step into the unknown or paranormal.
- Find the icon: Arthur Shlain’s “Pure Lines” collection
Triangles are the strongest shape and are often used to bear weight in construction. With their strength, triangles have come to represent perfection, unity and import.
- Find the icon: Alfredo’s “Video Gaming Glyph” collection
Circles are a universal symbol of totality or wholeness. Often associated with a spiritual journey or “coming full circle,” they also represent divinity or self-actualization.
- Find the icon: Fahmi Ramdani’s “UI Outline Vol. 1” collection
Looking to the heavens has long fascinated mankind. From astrological signs to the foil of light and darkness, here are what these planetary symbols mean.
Planets each hold unique meanings in the eyes of astrologers. Mercury represents communication and education, while Jupiter represents miracles and growth.
- Find the icon: Loka Mariella’s “Space & Astronomy” collection
Responsible for giving light to the Earth, the sun is a symbol of positivity, life and vision. With the rising and setting of the sun each day also comes the symbolism of new beginnings.
- Find the icon: Eko Purnomo’s “Space and Astronomy” collection
The moon is often seen as a symbol of femininity and natural rhythms of time. With its cycle of waxing and waning, it’s also seen as a symbol of change.
- Find the icon: Olena Panasovska’s “Moon” icon
Associated with sight, light represents intellect, clarity and new ideas. Religiously, light also has a strong connection to divinity and eternity.
- Find the icon: 1art’s “Bulb” icon
Opposing the intellect and clarity associated with light, darkness represents the unknown, fear and foreboding.
- Find the icon: JohnnyZi’s “Weather” collection
Animals are important symbols, especially in literature. Children’s stories often use these symbols to help relate morals in an easy-to-digest format.
Whether or not your next project involves graphic design for books, here’s how you can use these symbols to add layers of meaning to your project.
Swans are symbols of beauty and grace. Like the ugly duckling who turned out to be a swan, they also represent self-love and growth. A pair of swans represent perfect soul mates.
- Find the icon: Chanut is Industries’ “Welcome to Zootopia” collection
Patiently weaving their webs, spiders stand as a symbol of artistry and creativity. They also symbolize ancient wisdom.
- Find the icon: Erin Agnoli’s “Halloween” collection
Often called the “king of the jungle,” lions are symbols of royalty, authority and courage. They can also represent military might.
- Find the icon: IronSV’s “Lion” collection
As creatures who trust their own instincts, wolves are seen as symbols of trust and guardianship. With their pack nature, wolves also represent loyalty.
- Find the icon: Iconic’s “Wolf” icon
With their beautiful and colorful plumage, peacocks represent luxury, pride, sexuality and love.
- Find the icon: Elisabeta’s “Peacock” icon
Mythologies tend to focus on central questions around life, death, creation and the supernatural. Here are a few common symbols in mythology.
From the Salem witch trials to modern-day Halloween decorations, witches are symbols of magic, evil and depravity. They are often portrayed with long, crooked noses and warts to emphasize their grotesque nature.
- Find the icon: Nook Fulloption’s “Halloween Set 3” collection
Present in occultism, world religions and mythologies, demons represent malevolent spirits. They are often used to portray internal struggles against personal weakness, such as addiction or trauma.
- Find the icon: Icons Producer’s “Daemon” collection
As a contrast to demons, angels represent benevolent spirits. Angels are symbolic of a person’s inner goodness or voice of reason. They are also often seen as guardians and protectors.
- Find the icon: Nook Fulloption’s “Christmas Set 2” collection
With their intimidating horned helmets and armor, vikings are symbols of power and strength. Because of their connection to Norse mythology, vikings can also be representative of magic.
- Find the icon: Lastspark’s “Culture Outline” collection
Rising anew from its ashes, the phoenix represents rebirth, change and growth. In Egyptian and Greek mythologies, the phoenix is associated with the sun god.
- Find the icon: Saeful Muslim’s “World Mythology” collection
Ancient Symbols and Meanings
Symbols have been used to communicate meaning since ancient times, with the earliest known cave art dating back to about 70,000 BCE in Blombos Cave, South Africa.
These ancient symbols have stood the test of time and are still recognized today.
With origins in ancient Africa, the ankh is often referred to as the first cross. Adopted by Egyptian culture, the ankh came to be known as the key of life and represents eternal life.
- Find the icon: Atif Arshad’s “Egypt Symbols” collection
The mandala is a symbol from Asian cultures that represents a map toward happiness and wisdom. This can be an inner journey through practices like meditation, or an outward symbol of universal progress.
- Find the icon: Hassan Khaled’s “Mandalas” collection
The weapon of the Norse god Thor, Mjolnir is a symbol of power and strength. Because Thor is also the god of agriculture, Mjolnir can represent fertility and industry.
- Find the icon: Grégory Montigny’s “Religions” collection
39. Horned God
As a primary deity in Wicca and neo-paganism, the Horned God represents a masculine counterpart to the Triple Goddess. He stands as a symbol of wilderness, sexuality and hunting.
- Find the icon: Avana Vana’s “Occult” collection
An ancient Celtic symbol, the triquetra consists of three interlocking arcs that are said to represent life, death and rebirth. The symbol as a whole is then said to represent eternal life. In Christian traditions, the triquetra is used to represent the Trinity.
- Find the icon: Vectors Point’s “Symbols & Signs” collection
41. Yin and Yang
Yin and yang, or yin-yang, is a concept originating in ancient Chinese philosophy that states two counter-opposing forces bring balance to a greater whole. As such, the symbol can represent day and night, life and death, or war and peace, among other opposites.
- Find the icon: Alexander Panasovsky’s “Yin Yang” icon
A depiction of a lily, the fleur-de-lis symbol represents purity and chastity. In Christian religion, it represents the Virgin Mary, although it is also used in political emblems to represent nobility or military force.
- Find the icon: Webtechops’ “Fleur de Lis” icon
The ouroboros is a symbol from alchemy that depicts an eternal cycle of destruction and rebirth. It represents a unity of all things both material and spiritual.
- Find the icon: Grégory Montigny’s “Religions” collection
Using Symbols in Graphic Design
In graphic design, symbols can help amplify storytelling no matter what your design style is. By adding visuals to text, you can cross language barriers and communicate ideas quickly and powerfully.
Symbols and iconography can be used in:
- Web presentations
- Landing pages
- Blog posts
- Company branding and logos
- Social media
The key to using symbols appropriately is to understand their meaning. By using visuals that have established connotations, you can connect with your audience in an effective and engaging way. In short: Showing is often more powerful than telling.