Do you remember that the symbol of medicine used to be the red cross? Today, it’s the two snakes around the iron rod, called the “Caduceus” (the snake and rod symbol). Have you seen any symbols for attorneys or law advocates? They normally have a white-collar bow. In India, from where I’m from, this is what we commonly see, on office desks, or stickers on windshields of cars. When I was an engineer, I used to wonder, if doctors and lawyers have their symbols of the profession, what can symbolize an engineer? This thought always occurred when I saw either the red cross, the snakes and the rod, or the white-collar bow. I never actually dwelt on it. However, could there be a symbol for an engineer? The yellow helmet that we see at construction sites, garages or factories? Spectacles? Angle brackets like these <> from the software engineering perspective? A compass that draws a circle? An equation? But again, when you look at the symbol for doctors or lawyers you don’t actually have a doubt or confusion right? Because these symbols don’t relate to merely a profession or a designation or a role. These symbols, or a symbol in general, always relates to “the identity” – what defines you, what defines your work.
I never figured out or gave myself time to understand if there was a symbol for engineers, despite the fact that in India, engineering is considered to be the prime professional field, alongside medicine and law. These are clearly the top three – they might be fading away, thankfully, but surely, they held the top three spots for a long long time, and may still do. Although I loved my engineering and tech career, my life took a turn for the best, and I realized that my identity is and will always be of a designer.
“Designer” a word that invokes interest, rarity, confusion, abstraction, mystery, awe, and above all, still manages to raise people’s eyebrows sometimes. Don’t you agree? Why? What does a designer do? Does he sketch, paint, or use geometric tools like rulers and set squares or is he always on Adobe Photoshop getting those pixels perfectly aligned, or does he spend his whole day in the studio scribbling on paper, crushing ideas into paper balls and dunking them into the bin? It’s all of this. Measuring, drawing, failing, destroying, iterating, pixelating, building, destroying again, building better, and so on.
So then, what should be the symbol of a designer, the symbol of design? After giving it some thought, my mind got me back on a loop to the same thing.
The paper plane.
So why the paper plane? Because the paper plane means everything. It’s the ultimate symbol and epitome of imagination, childhood, desire, magic, travel, communication, prototyping, iteration, simplicity, creativity, belief, optimism, and design.
In my view, children are the best creators, ideators and designers. Among the many innovative and simple things they learn, the paper plane is among the first. They get them ready and use them as play or pranks. As an adult, take a paper and fold it into a paper plane. Wouldn’t you find it silly? Would you find it as silly when you were a little kid? The awe, that you can just take a piece of paper, make a few folds, and now have a toy that you can shoot into the air was amazing! You can play games, races, fights, with the other kids! This simple exercise of folding a paper into a plane and launching evokes so much optimism – you want it to fly higher, longer – tt’s your imagination, your will that takes flight, and its fun.
The paper plane is also very practical. It’s a great prototype – quick and easy. Iterate on the same thing, and you might be able to build a complex one, that can fly longer and faster or even carry something light over it. It’s a symbol of magic – a worthless piece of paper can now fly. It always reminded me of Alladin’s magic carpet. Below was a prototype for an interaction experiment for a project I worked on in school called ‘The Strangers Project’. You can read more here, but below is the prototype test with paper planes.
In today’s digital world, you would see paper planes more than ever! They are now almost an industry standard logo for ‘send’ or any communication or messaging related concept – in Instagram, some Google apps, and so on. Networking and messaging companies like WayUp, Telegram among others have it as their logo. There are also people who have attempted world records for the longest paper plane flights! You get my point.
I thank Michael Lee, Interaction Designer, Google, for sharing the above main post image. I was his student of Digital Design at Parsons. I also want to thank my friend, Annie, from Parsons for introducing me to paperplanes.world. I love this app with all my heart. Such simplicity, yet so much meaning, power and beauty.
I am a designer, I love to travel, I cherish and draw a lot of power from my childhood, I love superheroes and I strongly believe in magic – for me, that paper plane means everything. Let’s develop an appreciation for simplicity, let’s save our trees, so that our children can always fold, touch and feel a paper plane than just looking at them digitally. Fly high!