Setting Sights on the Arrow

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 1930s.

Three of Paul Klee's paintings using the arrow as a graphic element.

(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: recycling symbol, In-N-Out Burger logo, Subway logo

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: an antique weathervane arrow and parking sign arrow.

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.

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 deep space.

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, but a cultural one.

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 to PDF)