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Secret Handshake
Dragon's-Eye View
Jon Schindehette

Illustration by Drew Sheneman


R ecently I was having a discussion with a few folks in an online forum about "secret handshakes." You might know the kind of covert activity I'm talking about. You are walking down the street, and a guy walks by with a t-shirt that has an understated little symbol on it. You check it out. You catch the person's eye and nod. Secret handshake!

Now, whether it was a swoosh, a bar and shield, or one of a million other iconic symbols out there, the symbol tells you something about the person who is wearing it.

  • First and foremost, the symbol lets you know about some facet of the person's life and his or her interests.
  • It self-identifies the person with a set of standards, values, and goals that are associated with the symbol.
  • It gives you a common language and a shared interest—even though you've never spoken to the person before.

I was in a workshop the other day and a guy sat next to me. We were in a crush of folks—hundreds of people milling around—and this guy caught my eye immediately. Why? Because his shoes have this little symbol on them—a symbol that you would recognize only if you were a hard-core trail runner. His jacket had a symbol on it that told me this guy had seen some time on mountain faces. His watch had a symbol on it that told me he liked to take his watch hundreds of feet below the surface. Now none of the symbols were for the wannabes—they were for the dyed-in-the-wool purists of these various sports. So I leaned over and asked him a question that told him instantly that I was on to him. His eyes lit up, and we had a rousing discussion about all manner of extreme sports. A few minutes into the discussion, he asked me how I had known. I told him about the secret handshake, and he beamed from ear to ear. He had no idea that we were a walking billboard, and more importantly, he had no idea what his billboard said about himself.

You might be asking what this has to do with Dungeons & Dragons. I hope it has a lot to do with D&D. I have a ton of D&D-inspired goodies that I wear—t-shirts, belt buckles, wallets, and so on, and I love the reactions I get when I wander around the country with them on. I get stopped all the time by folks who want to relate tales of D&D in their lives. I LOVE that! I also get a lot of folks who say, "I'd love to wear that, but I'm not brave enough to flash my geekdom around like that." I completely get that. I'll admit, there are times and places where I, mega-geek, feel a little uncomfortable wearing my D&D gear. And that's why I'd love to have a secret handshake. Wouldn't it be cool to walk into a corporate boardroom in your business suit and have a tie that has a simple graphic on it that says, to the other cool and enlightened folks in the room, that you love D&D? That idea really gets me stoked!

Brand awareness and recognition is a noble endeavor—at least it is in my role as creative director. The ultimate goal is to create a visual identity that is easy to remember and that is immediately recognizable. Visual identity triggers perceptions and associations with the brand and unlocks a wealth of emotions and memories that accompany the past experiences with the brand. Through repeated exposure, the symbols that brands use to represent themselves become so recognizable that companies such as Target, Apple, and Nike have actually dropped the logotype from their corporate signatures. Uh oh, did I lose you? A logotype is the type treatment of the brand name (the "Nike" in the Nike "logo"). A corporate signature is the combination of the logotype and the brand mark (the swoosh symbol), and it sometimes includes the tagline as well ("Just do it"). The lay person lumps it all into the generic term "logo," but us visual folks have long (and sometimes quite boring) discussions about the meaning and form of every element in a visual identity. I could bore you to death and talk about the pros and cons of the various types of "marks," but I'd rather not get hung up on the academics too much.

Instead let's focus the conversation to just a few marks:

Letter Form Mark: Acts as a mnemonic device. Examples include the "M" for Motorola or the "W" in Westinghouse.
Pictorial Mark: A literal and recognizable symbol that might allude to the name of the company or its mission, or it might be symbolic of a brand attribute. The eagle of the U.S. Postal Service is both a symbol of America and a symbol of speed and dependability (cough, cough).
Abstract Mark: An abstract mark uses a visual form to convey a big idea or a brand attribute. A few examples would be the Nike swoosh, Hyatt's colored balls, and the Walmart burst.

Still awake? Good.

So. The D&D secret handshake. What makes for a good secret handshake? It should be simple, easy to read from a distance, evocative of the brand, and unique. I've kicked around the idea that we should make the ampersand the secret handshake, but that has a few problems. First, which ampersand should we use? If you were part of the discussion about the ampersand a few weeks back, then you know there isn't a single interpretation of the ampersand, and there are a lot of discussions about where we should go with the ampersand. I've also kicked around the idea that our end-it could be a useful symbol for the brand. What? You don't know what the end-it is? Yeah, that is a bit of a problem. We've used it so sporadically.


Now you are probably starting to see the concern. D&D hasn't really had a symbol that has lived throughout its history. We've had symbols that had relevance during different periods of its history, but nothing that has held firm through the past thirty-plus years. If we don't have a mark from our history to hang our hat on, then we have to either choose an image from our past or create a new symbol.

Where do we start?

Let's start by collecting some of the symbols from the past.

  • The wizard mark from the early TSR days
  • The various ampersands
  • The end-it
  • The d20

Got any other ideas or suggestions?

What about something new? What symbols might be evocative of the brand or the experience of the brand?

  • Swords, maces, hammers, or various other weapons
  • Shields
  • Wands or staffs
  • Dragon, owlbear, mind flayer, or various other monsters
  • Treasure chest

There has to be more to D&D than those simple tropes, right?

Jump into the comments section and share your thoughts and ideas.

Poll Results from Pointy Hats, or a Tale of Two Wizards

Where do you stand on pointy hats?
If it's good enough for Gandalf, it's good enough for me. 730 30.6%
I don't wear hats. 578 24.3%
I wear mine only to official functions. 502 21.1%
I have a more practical hat because I'm always on the go. 420 17.6%
Mine is collecting dust in my closet. 117 4.9%
I prefer a hat like ____ (please describe in the comments below). 36 1.5%
Total 2383 100.0%

What is the iconic element that tells you that a wizard is a wizard?
Use of a staff 495 24.9%
Carrying a spellbook or scroll 495 24.9%
Casting a fireball spell 380 19.1%
Wears flowing robes 287 14.4%
Carrying bags of spell components 113 5.7%
The silhouette 88 4.4%
Other (please explain in the comments below) 56 2.8%
Use of a wand 38 1.9%
Wears a hat 38 1.9%
Total 1990 100.0%
Jon Schindehette
Jon Schindehette joined Wizards of the Coast in 1997 as the website art director. In the intervening years he has worked as the marketing art director, novels art director, and creative manager. In January of 2009 he moved into the role of senior creative director for D&D. Jon is a long time D&D player (started in 1978), and currently plays in a Tuesday night game and DMs a random pick-up game for younger players. He can be found on Twitter (@ArtOrder) and at theartorder.com.
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