Symbolic Images in Visual Storytelling

Instructor: Yuanxin (Amy) Yang Alcocer

Amy has a master's degree in secondary education and has taught math at a public charter high school.

In this lesson, you'll learn how you can use symbolic images in your visual storytelling to send specific messages. Also learn how these messages can change with culture.

Symbolic Images

Visual storytelling, the telling of a story with pictures, often uses symbolic images to convey different thoughts quickly and efficiently. These symbolic images act as cues to viewers. When your viewer sees a certain symbol, they think of and experience various emotions or they are reminded of something else such as a particular company or product. For example, rain is often associated with sadness, so when a viewer sees a particular scene that fades away into some gray colored rain, the viewer will almost always feel sadness.

Universal Icons

This rain image is an example of a universal image or icon, one having the same meaning all over the world. Symbols like this are often used to ensure that everyone in a multi-cultural audience gets the same message.

Some other examples of recognizable symbols include a smiley face for happiness, a cross for medical services, and a snowman for winter fun. Images of healthy vibrant roses are also almost universally accepted as a symbol for friendship and love.

A smiley face is a universally accepted image that stands for happiness
symbolic images

Let's consider a few other examples. Certain images, such as a t-shaped cross, may bring to mind religions that use the cross in worship. The same is also true of the logos used by large universal companies. One look at one of these logo images and you'll know what product or company is being discussed. For example, one look at a pair of golden arches stuck together in the shape of an M and you'll think of McDonald's.

Cultural Differences

But not all symbolic images are universal. Some images are specific to a particular culture. For example, although white is associated with happy weddings in the United States, white is not always the color linked to happy occasions in the rest of the world. In China, white is associated with death and funerals and therefore brings negative emotions. So, if you were to advertise a happy occasion by using white in a commercial geared towards Chinese people, you just may find yourself distancing yourself from your Chinese audience.

Black in America is linked to funerals while white is the chosen funeral color in some Eastern countries
symbolic images

Another symbolic image that's culturally specific is that of Vegemite. This image is actually a product that's become distinctly Australian. To Australians, it reminds the people of their love for the simple and ordinary.

You'll have to do some research to find out if an image you want to use has a different cultural meaning than the one you are familiar with. Ask people from your target audience to see what their opinion is and also do some internet research.


Let's look at an example now.

Serena is working on creating a commercial for an interior design company in the United States. The message the company wants Serena to convey is that the spaces this company designs are all peaceful and very homey. How can Serena convey all this information in a short 30 seconds? Of course she can simply use words and type this information out. However, using visual and symbolic images can make her commercial that much more powerful. So, what images will she choose to include in her commercial?

Serena does some research to see what images people typically use to convey a feeling of peace and calm. She decides to use fireplaces, hot chocolate, reading nooks, and a minimal design. Serena continues researching to see if these images have any specific cultural meanings she has to watch out for. She finds that fireplaces and a minimal design are viewed the same way regardless of culture. So, she decides to focus on these two elements in her commercial. She focuses on using pictures and video from the company that include these two symbolic images in them.

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