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In the book Design Elements by Timothy Samara, Mr. Samara depicts a spectrum for the representation of images, ranging from pictorial (literal/concrete) representation to non pictorial (abstract) representation. Both these territories contain sub territories, denoting/describing the "mode" of representation. Please note image below.

enter image description here

In the scale it is observed that the representation of images (In this example a sign depicting an "eye") falling within the category of "pictorial" can be identified as literal portrayals of objects that exist in reality. ie. They resemble objects that exist in the real world.

Those identified as "pictorial" representations include the sub territories of Literal, Concrete and Iconic. As shown in the image below. It can be clearly observed that the representation of images within the "pictorial" sub territories can all represent objects that can be identified in the real world, with varying level of detail (either expansive or reductive in detail)

enter image description here

Conversely on the opposite end of the spectrum, of "Non pictorial" representation, ie. the objects depicted do not resemble anything that exist in physical reality, the following sub territories are defined: Diagrammatic, Connotative and Symbolic. As shown in the picture below.

enter image description here

Within the sub territory labelled as "Diagrammatic" While representing the signified ("An eye"), The syntax of the form used appears to depart from what could be described as "existing in reality", but still relates to some extent to a literal representation of an "eye", albeit using a reductive and abstracted syntax. Within the context of the pictorial representations of the eye, the connection can be made.


Within the sub territory labelled as "Connotative" it is not clear what is being said or represented. Being non pictorial the representation should not match anything that exists in reality and With the term "connotative", it would imply the signified (in this case the eye, or parts of it) should not be directly referenced. But from what I am interpreting from the imagery shown above the "connotative" label, it does seem to represent objects found in reality, and it does seem to literally reference the eye. In the first example The imagery appears to be a zoomed in iris and pupil with eyelashes albeit somewhat stylized and mediated, and in the second example, concentric lines are drawn that could represent an iris. So in both examples I can see that the signified "the eye" (or parts of the eye) is directly being portrayed and literally being referenced.


Within the sub territory labelled as "Symbolic", The symbol of a letter "e" is represented. It does not exist in reality, but it is a culturally learned symbol that represents a character of the English language. The same can be said about the symbol for a power button. It has no meaning until it was culturally learned to have a meaning. By reading about semiotics, It is my understanding a sign that is "Symbolic" could also be represented by objects that exist in reality. Example an image of a dove could be symbolic for peace. This would not match the definition of "Non pictorial" since a dove does exist in reality.


I have some confusion regarding regarding the non pictorial(using only abstract forms): diagrammatic, connotative and symbolic representations. What is the difference between each ? Using the same signified idea, How would each be distinctly visually represented, in terms of both subject matter and visual syntax.

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    Super relevant and interesting subject, and well written. But the question itself is a bit unclear. The lack of a question mark is always a bit problematic as it makes it hard to know if one is actually answering what is being asked. Another problem is that it's hard to say with 100% confidence what someone else meant when they chose those representations.
    – Wolff
    Mar 27 at 10:34
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    The way I read this question is that you are asking for definitions, which I feel is more of an English language question rather than a graphic design question TBH. Connotative means having an idea of, or suggestion of something - one could say "impressionistic", and that means there is some semblance of the actual object being depicted. Symbolic means involving the use of symbols to represent something else - like using a character, or logo to represent something - it need not be a literal representation, although it could be.
    – Billy Kerr
    Mar 27 at 10:43
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    You might find Scott McCloud's take on the subject in Understanding Comics interesting. Instead of an "pictorial-nonpictorial" axis, he uses a triangular model with "reality", "the picture plane" and "language/meaning". In the book/comic he draws different versions of the triangle as he explains the idea. Here are three of them: 1, 2, 3.
    – Wolff
    Mar 27 at 10:47
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    The representation that throws you off the most is this one right? Because it actually looks like a drawing of an eye and not just something that connotates "eye"? That's also what I see, but I must say that it's a very small and pixelated image. Perhaps we just want to see an eye. Might be a poor choice by the author to use this image. Would be easier to discuss if we could see more of the image and in higher resolution.
    – Wolff
    Mar 27 at 11:03
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    But if it's a zoomed in image of something else that just looks like an iris, I think we could say that it just connotates "eye" as it isn't in fact an image of an eye. It's our brain that links an image of something "eye-like" to an actual "eye". (No to say anything bad about Samara, I must admit I find this axis a bit too simplified. Don't you agree that adding a second axis, like McCloud does, makes more sense? I don't necessarily agree that the "iconic" eye is closer to reality than the "connotative" eye.)
    – Wolff
    Mar 27 at 11:20

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First off, you are asking about an interpretation of someone else's example. This will be very opinion based as we each will have our own interpretation- and therefore this is a pretty unanswerable question. Seeing as how you have put a lot of energy into this (at least a lot of typing) I will give you my interpretation.

I believe you are getting stuck at the idea that this authors idea of connotative and symbolic are things that are not real and do not exist. Any time you put something on a blank canvas it is something that is real.

Take this shape for example- It is something- a series of black lines , or a stylized triangle, etc. It would be a far thing for this to be seen as an eye.

enter image description here

Now put it in this context:

enter image description here

And is recognized as an eye (I know- brilliant artistry)

I believe what he refers to is that these representations do not exist as examples of eyes not that they do not exist at all. We are seeing these examples in his chart in context of eye representations and therefore thinking of eyes. If you showed me any of his connotative or symbolic objects by themselves it would take me a long while to see them as eyes. (Note I do not see a close up of an iris there at all).

My summation is that pictoral representations of eyes are recognizable as eyes in and of themselves whereas non-pictoral eye representations will heavily rely on context to be understood as an eye. Pretty much anything can be made to represent an eye and the proper context is necessary for connotative or sympolic objects.

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  • I would have to disagree regarding the importance of distinguishing what forms can be identified as being real world objects and which are not. That is the purpose of the model, and hence the question, to be able to distinguish different types of signifiers. Although relevant, putting aside context, The question is regarding how can a Non Pictorial image (one that relies only on abstract forms and syntax), diagrammatically, connotatively and symbolically represent the same idea.
    – Samwyzz
    Mar 28 at 5:08
  • That is, what is the difference between each type of the mentioned representations ?
    – Samwyzz
    Mar 28 at 5:08
  • In the example you have drawn, as masterfully done it is, putting aside context, the form used to represent the eye does not share any meaningful intrinsic formal qualities that communicate anything that could relate to an eye. For example a dot/point, is a point of focused attention which may allude to the focusing powers of the eye, a line is directional in nature that may allude to the eyes ability to look in a certain direction etc. I believe the form language should intrinsically communicate such attributes to be considered an abstract representation.
    – Samwyzz
    Mar 28 at 6:04

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