Stereotypes and Culturally Appropriate Symbolism in Design

Words have power, but visuals can connect with your audience on an even deeper, more emotional level. Creating an emotional connection is what we strive for when designing with change in mind. If you want to inspire people, you need to make waves. Emotions make waves. In design, one of our most powerful tools is symbolism.

The power of emotion

Symbolism provides a visual shorthand that can instantly convey complex emotions and ideas. By tapping into universal cultural icons and archetypes as communication designers, we can create projects that resonate with your target audience. However, it’s important to use these symbols thoughtfully to avoid perpetuating stereotypes or using culturally inappropriate images.

Stereotypes can reinforce harmful biases and undermine the message of a design. By relying too heavily on overused symbols, designs risk losing the impact of their message and coming across as insincere.

Symbolism used well

During a recent project based around substance recovery, we used a visual of someone climbing a mountain to illustrate this difficult journey. We had to be careful in our presentation of the mountain, as the recovery process does not have a finite endpoint; it’s a lifelong expedition. Speaking to the community and understanding the impact visuals can have, we took pride in creating a very sincere, thoughtful design that would resonate with someone on that particular journey.

Mental Health Problems in the Canadian Justice System

Awareness of cultural representation in the Canadian justice system

The Inquiring Mind – Youth

Representing mental health concepts for youth

Recovery on Campus

Visual representation of goals vs outcomes

Be mindful and do your research

It’s essential to be mindful of cultural appropriation and avoid using symbols that have a deeper meaning or significance in certain cultures that may not be appropriate to borrow. As designers, we complete thorough research to ensure we are accurately representing a culture or group and not relying on harmful stereotypes.

One way to avoid stereotypes is to create unique and unexpected takes on symbols. For example, a design focused on mental health could portray hopefulness through creative means, such as vibrant hues and daring forms, rather than medical imagery, such as stethoscopes or pills, which can be stigmatizing.

At Aurora, we collaborate with members of the community or culture being represented, to ensure that the symbols we use are authentic and respectful. This not only helps to ensure accuracy in the design but also helps involve communities in the process of creating meaningful imagery and messaging.

Using symbolism is a powerful tool in design, but it’s important to use it thoughtfully and with cultural awareness. By avoiding stereotypes, cliches and culturally inappropriate symbols and collaborating with members of the community being represented, designers can create work that truly resonate with their audience and drive positive change in the world.