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Symbols / Signs

The assignment is to design a sign that suggests a quality or fact, an image symbolizing the activity that it represents. This sign should be independent of time, not based on fashion. It should be memorable and simple and so coherent in composition that no part can be removed without diluting the whole message. No frills.

This is not a corporate identity project, although it requires a similar process. The main purpose is to design a strong, concise visual statement.

When students are asked to find an existing symbol that meets these criteria, they find it astonishing that so few exist. Later they see why. It is difficult to design a good one—it takes concentrated effort, imagination, and talent.

This assignment is more demanding than designing a poster or book; you are not likely to have a preconceived notion of what the end result will be.

The students begin by doing research on the organization for which the symbol is being constructed. Members of the organization are asked to express their vision of the organization as it is now and what it can become if all goes well. The students must try to give these perceptions, dreams, and intentions symbolic form.

Once this research is completed, each student, separately, prepares two lists of descriptive words about the organization, under the headings “abstract” and “concrete.” The separate lists are combined into two master lists, one for abstract and one for concrete characteristics.

The students then begin an intense visual search with no finished product in mind. They put on paper all the images they can think of and select the “good” ones for further development.

They may go through hundreds of sketches before they are ready to defend particular possibilities. Several directions may be chosen and pursued.

They reach a point where they feel strongly about one or a small number of ideas. Cute, trendy concepts go out the window.

Eventually they choose a single idea and begin to refine it, applying precise craftsmanship and great care concerning form, counterform, weight, proportion, and so on.

While they develop the symbol, they also design the organization's logotype.

The students next apply the symbol in many situations and sizes, on several promotion pieces, testing the design in action to see if it retains high recognition value in varied use.

Their previous studies of letterforms bear fruit in this assignment, especially their work on form and counterform.

Tools for Training

A nonprofit grassroots organization that accepts tools from manufacturers and others to send to schools in underdeveloped countries.

International Institute of Rhode Island

This agency helps immigrants in southeastern New England become self-reliant, productive members of society and improves awareness and understanding of the cultural heritage and traditions that these newcomers bring to the United States.

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