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Strolling through the recent Bauhaus
show at the Museum of Modern Art,
I was struck by the paintings by Paul Klee. In several, such as
Contrasts in the Evening and
Separation in the Evening, Klee painted bold arrows,
crisply geometric with 90-degree points and so modern they could
have leapt from an airport wayfinding symbol set. They could have
been time-transported from a 1960s modernist drawing board and
dropped into Klee's dreamy, dusty-hued paintings of the 1920s and
(Clockwise from top left) Paul Klee's arrows are geometric in
Separation in the Evening (1922, Zentrum Paul Klee) and Arrow in
the Garden (1929, Centre
Pompidou); and fluid in The Arrow before the Target (1921,
Museum of Modern Art).
As contemporary as these arrows seem, the arrow is probably the
oldest and most basic of graphic symbols. Though it may have
originated as a weapon for hunting, it is now the primary metaphor
of direction that we use continually to navigate through virtual
and physical worlds.
Arrows have important meaning in Klee's universe. I could see
how the boldness of the arrow shape activated the softer
watercolors of the fields and spaces of some his paintings. I also
read that the arrow for Klee symbolized activity. For Klee the
arrow was a symbol of tortured romanticism. As construed by various
critics and Klee's own fevered Pedagological
Sketchbook (1925), based on his Bauhaus lectures, his
arrows stood for energy, effort and spiritual yearning. “The father
of the arrow is the thought, how do I expand my reach?” Klee wrote.
“Over this river, this lake, this mountain? ... It is the contrast
between power and prostration that implies the duality of human
existence. Half winged, half imprisoned — this is man! Thought is
the mediary between earth and the universe.”
An art history student thesis from 2007
on the arrow in Klee's work puts it quite succinctly. While we use
in the arrow on road signs and as a symbol on our computer screens,
“In [the1922 painting Good Place for Fish], and in many more
by Klee, the arrow functions not in the ways it does in daily life
by showing purposeful direction, but rather in a manner that is
wholly unique to Klee's artistic production and enters into the
realm of metaphysics and phenomenology.”
Klee's arrows have a ruler-rigid 90-degree point, rather than
the aerodynamic acuity of the more common sharper point. Some
arrows seem soft and fluid, even protoplasmic. Some resemble
flatworms from my high school biology text. Some suggest minarets
or other towers. More than a few inevitably evoke the penis. Klee's
arrow is to be found as an abstract image more explicitly in the
work of his disciples and students Saul Steinberg and Jean Folon.
But it is in signage and “user interface” that we encounter the
arrow most often.
Popular arrows (from left): recycling symbol, In-N-Out Burger
logo, Subway logo.
I started looking for arrows and soon I couldn't seem to avoid
them. The arrow is everywhere in our graphics, a key tool in the
box of directions: stenciled on the asphalt, double-headed or
branched like a tree on the urban freeway sign, over-slashed on the
“no left turn” signal, glowing in red neon on the commercial strip.
There, zigzagging arrows grab for the eye of the motorist and
demand a maneuver of the same geometry—the sudden turn. Big
sweeping curved arrows sell clubs and motels, wrapping a friendly
arm around the customer's shoulder like an ingratiating salesman.
It's also there lurking inside
Landor's logo for FedEx.
Henry Dreyfuss's Symbol Sourcebook offered a system based on the arrow
for describing automobile accidents, presumably for police and
insurance representatives. Squiqqly arrows indicate skidding, while
arrows that meet indicate a sideswipe, for instance. The vast
compendium of international computer symbols, Unicode, includes
standards for dozens of arrow variations.
There are arrows in signs on city streets, like the S and Y of
the Subway sandwich shop logo. Or out on the highway strip, they
were sharply angled as in the In-N-Out burger, crooking its elbow
at the passing motorist urging a sharp turn. Or boiled down to a
simple triangle of frosty Lucite above elevators—and reduced to a
black triangle on CD player and iPod controls. On our latest,
smallest devices, the arrow is just a tiny triangle.
It radiates a sense of direction by its very shape, which is
optimized for smooth passage, one way, through air and flesh. But
the basic message of direction can be built on and played with. So
the arrow curves back on itself in the “undo” icon and arrows chase
their tails in the recycling symbol.
Found by the author: an antique weathervane arrow and parking
sign arrow. (photos: Phil Patton)
The arrow as symbol must have begun in extreme literalness. As a
graphic element, it shows up in a few 18th-century diagrams,
historians tell us, but with little detail. But its use must go
back to when some putative primitive ancestor of ours decided draw
an arrow on the ground directing his fellow hominids toward prey or
cave. Surely there is no sign more basic except perhaps the image
of the hand with pointing finger.
Tracking the use of the arrow as a graphic element over the
centuries is not easy. It figures in the compass rose, the key
arrangement of the cardinal directions that was the center of the
navigation revolution that among other things produced voyages from
Europe to America. But the compass
has been documented to only a couple of centuries B.C., the
arrow must be far older—the bow and arrow succeeded the atlatl long, long
ago—perhaps dating back roughly 25,000 to 50,000 years.
Apple iPod Classic features arrows reduced to their simplest
form: small triangles.
The arrow in literal symbolism, in painting, say, is often tied
to Cupid or to war, as when clutched in the claws of the eagle. But
the arrow is about that abstract idea—direction. Looking at all the
arrows in our world, I was amazed not at how abstract they are but
how literal: how many have long shafts and fins or feathers like
the first aerodynamic incarnations.
The arrow was assumed to be so universal that distant alien
civilizations would understand it. In the famed plaque Carl
Sagan helped design for the Pioneer probe, an arrow shows the
connection between Earth and the spacecraft as it heads off into
We often speak of time's arrow, a concept that has deeper
meanings in physics. The idea that time has direction is basic to
all our thinking. But the display of time in spatial terms may be
less universal than we think. “We in the West see time as a river,”
declaimed my high school friend Gary, a heavy reader of Hermann
Hesse. “In the East they see it as a lake.” Some argue that
alternative Asian representations place the past, not the future,
ahead of us on time's arrow. The notion that the future is “ahead,”
the past “behind,” turns out to be not just a graphic convention,
Zeno's arrow is a much-cited paradox from Plato. The paradox is
definitional: if you divide in half the distance remaining between
the arrow in flight and the target, the result will always be a
positive amount. Does that mean the arrow will never reach its
target? For mathematicians, it is perplexing. For graphic
designers, it is clearer cut: we will always lead with and be led
by the arrow.
From the Arrow to the Fish: Paul Klee's Architectural
Thinking, by Jessica Daniel, The Ohio State University, June
2007, senior honors thesis (link
This system of 50 symbol signs, produced by AIGA and the U.S. Department of Transportation, was designed for use at the crossroads of modern life.
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