Arrows are nearly everywhere we look. They designate and control the movement of information, people, and machines. 1 However, the use of the arrow as a symbol is thought to be less than four hundred years old. In early maps and diagrams the arrow is often illustrated as a variation of an archer’s arrow complete with point, shaft, and fletching. Over time the arrow becomes increasingly simplified and abstracted to the degree that the only recognizable feature of the original archer’s arrow is simply a triangular point for the head. This endures as the most elementary characteristic of every arrow regardless of its application and meaning.
One of the earliest evidences of an instructional illustration is that of a footprint next to a woman’s face. (Fig. 1). This pictograph is inscribed into the pavement of the ancient Greek city of Ephesus (now present-day Turkey) around the first-century AD. It is a reductive set of directions to the local brothel. The two symbols, a footprint and the woman’s face, when united is read to suggest, “Walk in the direction that the foot is pointing towards to reach the brothel.” 2
The foot is the integral piece of wayfinding information. The toes are pointed towards the direction of the brothel literally showing the viewer the pathway. It is the visual equivalence of the phrase, “Follow the footprints.” The pictograph originates from an evidenced-based observation that a footprint can direct and lead us to a destination. Semiotically, it functions as an index with an empirical and causal relationship.
Similarly, the image of a pointing finger is found in early instructional illustrations and signage. One example is the fingerboard—a road sign that is shaped like an elongated hand with an extended finger pointing towards the direction of the nearest town. 3
Pointing fingers are also used in early printed texts and manuscripts. They are referred to by a variety of names, including printer’s fist, pointers, and manicules. These pointing fingers are drawn in the margins of books by the reader when marking up and dividing long and crucial passages of text. Author G. A. Glaister believes that their usage can be traced as far back as the twelfth-century. However, they are more common in books produced and annotated in Italy during the fourteenth- and fifteenth-centuries. 4 It is believed that French typographer Claude Garamond designed the first set of manicules within a typographic system around 1530. Manicules have since been modified and reinterpreted in numerous ways. In 1933, American typographer Bruce Rogers designed a version of Aesop’s Fables using the cuff of a harlequin outfit combined with the pointing hand to serve as indicators throughout the book. (Fig. 2). Sixty years later Dutch type designer Martin Majoor revived Roger’s harlequin fists for his type family Scala. 5
In the essay “Pictorial Instructions” historian E. H. Grombrich suggests that the first usage of a symbolic arrow does not occur before the eighteenth-century and believes that such wordless pictorial instructions even then were rare. 6 However, one example of a symbolic arrow is found in Bernard Forest deBélidor’s treatise Hydraulic Architecture, published in France in 1737. Bélidor, an engineer, uses an arrow to indicate the flow of water and direction of a waterwheel’s rotation. (Fig. 3). In his diagram, the arrow is illustrated to resemble an archer’s arrow. The head is a triangular point connected to a thin shaft and completed with a feathered tail.
Around the same time in Germany, examples of arrows being used to indicate the direction and flow of rivers and streams are drawn in by cartographers. The maps and illustrations of German cities and landmarks created by Friedrich Bernhard Werner in the middle of the eighteenth-century exemplify this form of arrow and application7 (Fig. 4). Similar to Bélidor’s arrow and other samples from this time period, the arrow is rendered as an archer’s arrow.
Like the empirical origins of the Greek brothel directions and that of the assorted manicules, the symbolic arrow stems from the first-person observation. In this case it is witnessing the trajectory of an archer’s arrow being shot from a bow into the air. The movement and direction of a discharged archer’s arrow are embodied in the symbolic arrow.
ABSTRACTION & VARIATION
By the mid-to-late nineteenth-century, there is a shifting trend in how the arrow is rendered. The tail ornamentation that references the fletching of an archer’s arrow is removed and the triangular head or diagonal lines converging to a singular point remain. For Swiss typographer and designer Adrian Frutiger, this is the essential and defining feature of an arrow that will communicate its basic function. (Fig. 5). Frutiger states, “When two oblique lines come together to form an angle, the expression of a movement or direction is produced in some form.” 8
Accordingly, the embellishments of either a shaft or fletching become superfluous.
English cartographer Emil Reich is credited with pioneering the application of arrows for analytical and pedagogical uses in his book, A New Student’s Atlas of English History.9
Reich’s maps are a “cartographic complement to John Richard Green’s History of the English People.” 10 The maps incorporate solid triangular arrowheads placed intermittently along curving lines to indicating the army movements across Europe of various English military campaigns as well as other notable events and migrations. (Fig. 6).
As the arrow’s form is reduced to the primary shape of the triangle, there is an increase in the variety of messages and meanings that an arrow is capable of conveying.
One example is the use of the arrow in Set Theory and Logic. (Fig. 7). In 1922, German mathematician David Hilbert introduces the arrow symbol to represent logical implication, so that a formula may read as follows, “X implies Z,” or read another way, “Z is a consequence of X.” A decade later, Albrecht Becker uses a double-headed arrow to represent logical equivalence. Here it may read as, “P is equal to Q.” 11
Today there are a myriad of usages for and forms of arrows. Most retain close ties to their origins as means of communicating direction and movement. Others begin to leap into more abstract ideas that are contingent upon socially constructed meaning and cultural interpretation. For example, the image of a broken arrow for Native Americans serves as a sign for “peace.” The viewer is required to have prior knowledge that the arrow represents a weapon—you can’t fight with a broken arrow.12
Contemporary designers utilize arrows in their work to represent specific concepts that directly relate to a particular product or service. An arrow hidden within the FedEx logotype represents the transportation and movement of packages and shipments. Subway Restaurants uses a similar concept in their logo. However, instead of packages that are moving, it is the customer that proceed swiftly through the deli sandwich line. The logo for Swedish automaker Volvo incorporates the Roman symbol for Mars which includes an arrow projecting outwards from a open circle. The Roman symbol is also used as the sign for the chemical element iron which alludes to the strength and quality of the metal used in the manufacturing of Volvo’s vehicles. (Fig. 8).
Amidst the variety of forms and slightly different meanings an arrow may embody, it is generally assumed to be universally understood symbol. And while its history is punctuated with evolutions in both form and meaning, its universally agreed upon interpretations may be far from complete. 13
In 1972 NASA prepared to launch the Pioneer 10 spacecraft to observe Jupiter. Prior to its launch they asked astronomer Carl Sagan to develop a message that would facilitate communication with extraterrestrial life in the event that contact should occur. Sagan, along with fellow astronomer Frank Drake and Sagan’s then wife Linda Salzman-Sagan, developed a pictorial message that was placed aboard the spacecraft. (Fig. 9).
Among the images and iconography depicted on the plaque is a diagram of our solar system including a small icon of the Pioneer 10 spacecraft with an arrow pointing to it that extends from Earth. The inclusion of the arrow on the plaque presupposes universality: Even extraterrestrials, with no assumed knowledge of any of our languages or forms of communication could recognize that the arrow shows that the spacecraft they have just encountered originated from this mysterious planet Earth — the third planet from the Sun. And until proven otherwise by contact with life outside our planet, it appears that the arrow is indeed a universally understood symbol.
From the author's 2011, University of Florida MFA thesis "Up Down Left Right."
- 1 Gillian Fuller, “The Arrow—Directional Semiotics: Wayfinding in Transit.” 239.
- 2 Piet Westendorp & Karel van der Waarde, “Icons: Support or Substitute.” 91–94.
- 3 Elizabeth S. Helfman, Signs and Symbols Around the World. 142.
- 4 William Sherman, “Toward a History of the Manicule.” http://www.livesandletters.ac.uk/papers/FOR_2005_04_002.html.
- 5 Martin Majoor, “FF Scala Hands.” http://www.martinmajoor.com/1.1_scala_article_majoor.html.
- 6 E. H. Grombrich, “Pictorial Instructions.” 228.
- 7 Ibid., 288.
- 8 Adrian Frutiger, Signs and Symbols: Their Design and Meaning. 48.
- 9 Jeremy Black, Maps and History: Constructing Images of the Past. 94.
- 10 James Tait, Review of A New Student’s Atlas of English History. 540.
- 11 13. Jeff Miller, Earliest Uses of Symbols of Set Theory and Logic. http://jeff560.tripod.com/set.html.
- 12 Elizabeth S. Helfman, Signs and Symbols Around the World. 31.
- 13 Phil Patton, “Setting Sights on the Arrow.” http://www.aiga.org/setting-sights-on-the-arrow.