Symbols Matter

Symbols Matter

imageWe learnt this week that symbols matter. The unprecedented protest of signatures on this week (Defend Our Opera House: Support Louise Herron) demonstrates this. In less that a week over 300,000 signatures were gathered against the NSW Government’s decision to project advertising for a horse race on the Sydney Opera House.

It all started with an abusive tirade by a Sydney ‘shock jock’ with the CEO of the Opera House Louise Herron, who has since feebly apologized (Alan Jones apologises for Opera House interview). Then the Premier of NSW announced that the horse race would be advertised on the Sydney Opera, a cultural icon for Sydney and Australia. Well, the avalanche of protest soon fell on the Government and the ‘shock jock’.

What became very clear over the course of the protest was the naivety and ignorance from politicians about the significance of icons and symbols. Whilst they wanted to talk about tourism dollars, education policy, taxation and international aid, these were al dwarfed by the protest about the abuse of an icon! What was even more remarkable was the denial and defense of the decision in the face of protest ( Even the Prime Minister weighed in on the issue describing the Opera House as a ‘billboard’ ( The backlash has been nothing short of sensational (

You can read here why the Opera House is an iconic symbol for Australians (

Symbols and icons point to something more than themselves. They declare a representation that embodies everything from: history, culture, social identity and ideology. So, how is this relevant for safety?

Unfortunately, safety is most represented by symbols and icons about objects. When people seek to symbolize and represent the significance of keeping people safe they present boots, gloves, glasses, animals and witches hats as icons for the industry. These icons tell people unconsciously what matters to the industry ( When the industry seeks to represent what safety is about it anchors to PPE ( Goodness me, the least important aspect of the hierarchy of control is made the most significant object for safety. When you walk on site and ask workers about this, they all confuse PPE for safety, well done!

Unfortunately, safety just doesn’t get iconography ( In the world of HELPING to keep PEOPLE safe all that is made significant is not conversation, communication, listening or helping but PPE.

Icons are a language ( Icons and symbols speak to people, this is the study of semiotics ( Like politicians, Safety doesn’t seem to get the power of symbols (

Dr Rob Long

Dr Rob Long

Expert in Social Psychology, Principal & Trainer at Human Dymensions
Dr Rob Long

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Dr Rob Long
PhD., MEd., MOH., BEd., BTh., Dip T., Dip Min., Cert IV TAA, MRMIA Rob is the founder of Human Dymensions and has extensive experience, qualifications and expertise across a range of sectors including government, education, corporate, industry and community sectors over 30 years. Rob has worked at all levels of the education and training sector including serving on various post graduate executive, post graduate supervision, post graduate course design and implementation programs.

2 Replies to “Symbols Matter”

  1. Dear Rob,

    Your timing could not be better. Next Monday 15/102018 commemorates 48 years since the Westgate bridge disaster in Melbourne, which claimed the lives of 35 construction workers when it collapsed and 2000 tons of concrete and steel plunged into the Yarra River:

    The memorial plaque beneath the bridge on Douglas Parade in Spotswood is quite chilling and was paid for and erected by bridge workers……..”Governments are not moral agents” – Noam Chomsky

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