Signs of the Times

The next UX Academy blog post is around understanding iconography through learning to see icons, symbols and indexes in everyday life.

The assignment: Using a camera and a sketchbook get outside and into an urban environment and try to find at least 5–7 examples of symbols & icons in everyday life. Take photos of the icons and sketch them in your sketchbook. Document where you found them and what they mean.

Let’s start by explaining the different types of signs that can exist. Charles Pierce categorized signs according to their elements.

A symbol or symbolic sign is assigned arbitrarily or is accepted as societal convention. Its meaning must therefore be learned. For example, letters of the alphabet, the number system, mathematical signs, computer code and so forth.

An icon or iconic sign resembles or imitates its signified object in that it possesses some of its qualities. Therefore, the relationship between what the sign stands for and the object does not necessarily have to be learned. For example, a portrait, a cartoon, sound effects, or a statue.

An index or indexical sign is a mode in which the signifier might not resemble its signified object. It is directly connected in some way to the object and the relationship between what the sign stands for and the sense behind it may have to be learned. For example smoke, thunder or footprints.

These are some of the icons I found walking around near my office.

Fire Extinguisher Sign

This sign was found in my office. This can be categorised as an icon because it resembles the thing it represents.

Speed Bump Sign

This sign indicates that there is a speed bump on the road. To someone who has never seen this sign it may not be obvious. This is classed as an icon as it does resemble a speed bump but it’s meaning must be learned by new drivers.

Hearing Protection

This sign is also an icon but may be confusing. The use of blue depicts trust. Using red and white may be a better choice to warn people that they need hearing protection.

No Entry sign

The no entry sign is an example of a symbolic sign. It bears no resemblance to it’s meaning and must be learned. It is universally accepted as societal convention

Autumn Leaves

This is an example of an indexical sign. The brown and red leaves are directly related to the onset of autumn weather, however the relationship between them must be learned.

Hopefully you have learnt something new about the signs that exist around us to help navigate the world. Until next time!


Peirce, C. Collected Writings (8 Vols.). (1931–58). Ed. Charles Hartshorne, Paul Weiss & Arthur W Burks. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Atkin, A. Peirce’s Theory of Signs. (2010). The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edward N. Zalta (ed.). Accessed December 29, 2012.

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