The History of Signs - Transforming from Warnings to Protests

 

You see all forms and shapes of signs on your regular commutes, ranging from holiday greetings to storefront signs. The prevalence of signs in our lives also extends to the far reaches of online platforms, from banner ads to pop-up ads. This simple yet widely used visual medium of words and symbols on a canvas has been a critical part of different periods in human history.

Using signs isn’t strictly limited to one country, culture, or group of people. Communicating through visual means has been present in colourful points in history, pointing to the development of the visual medium in crucial moments in history.

 

The history of the early signs

The etymology of the word “sign” comes from the Old French word “signe,” meaning mark or token. Instead of being a visual marker on paper, people commonly referred to it as a gesture or motion of the hand.

Although some cultures referred to signs as hand gestures, humans have made different markers on stone or wood surfaces with staining materials like ash or liquid. These were a means of passing down information or celebrating rituals. Among the more popular usages of signs or markings in history include the Egyptian hieroglyphs, Lascaux drawings, and even carvings within the Stonehenge.

 

The political value of signs

Besides being primitive instruction manuals and records for ritualistic celebrations, markings eventually stood for discernible markings for the economy. In 1389 CE, King Richard III required merchants to use signs outside their shops. This would help customers understand what establishment they’d be going into, whether it’s a carpentry shop or a tavern. This example of political regulation of signs would play a crucial role across history.

Signs will serve a diverse role in society, with different social classes utilising them for various means. For example, knights would use banners in battle to distinguish themselves from others with the alliances they represented. On the other hand, banners became a sign of unity for people to join together and uphold their rights. Labour unions and suffragists used signs crafted through silk and hung over wooden frames to visualise their group’s voice.

 

The formalisation and reach of signs

Over time, different institutions and organisations would formalise particular movements by defining specific visual cues. For example, The Artists’ Suffrage League of England drafted clear guidelines for the proper text and colours to be used for signs expressing voting rights. Another instance of formalised symbols is how the LGBTQIA+ community adopted the rainbow flag to represent gay pride. The rainbow is now symbolic of the movement with no need for explanations or additional text, making it a powerful statement on diversity and shared intentions.

 

Conclusion

Signs have come a long way, from depicting images in stone to large-scale tarpaulins and print billboards. Although the medium of signage has changed, its purpose remains the same. This is why it’s still a valuable means of spreading messages, whether for business or personal purposes. It can promote a new product, warn drivers about roadway precautions, and even be a simple congratulations for a family member’s achievement.

Signs played a crucial role in disseminating information, with imagery becoming more pronounced for communicating over formal languages. Since humans rely on visual cues even today, the value of having banners and logos remains as a simple and effective way to communicate messages.

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