Learning to See Iconography

How symbols and icons are used and why they matter

Signs are used to represent or attribute meaning to a specific action or cause, and allow us to better understand the world around us. Symbols and icons are just two of the types of signs that we encounter every day.

Symbols are learned signs — this means that someone cannot understand them without first being told what they represent. Examples of this include mathematical signs (+, –, ÷, etc.) and the letters in the alphabet. Without knowing their uses, they are meaningless. However, once learned, symbols are powerful signs that can enrich our experiences 100-fold.

Icons are signs that try to resemble or imitate its signifier in some way. Because of this, icons can usually be interpreted and do not need to be learned. Examples of this include the “Magnifying glass” icon, which represents a search function, or a cartoon drawing.

Magnifying glass used for Search Icon

In a world filled with information, we rely heavily on icons and symbols to simplify our understanding of how things work. Below are just five examples of icons and symbols that I encountered just yesterday:

Do Not Discard Icon

The above image was found on a Macbook charger, and while there was no text to accompany it, it is clear that this sign means “Do Not Throw in Trash”. Due to its attempt to imitate its literal meaning, this sign would be classified as an icon. Products often utilize universal signs to convey different messages to users without the need for text instructions. Some examples include the “Recycle” symbol (three arrows in a circle) and the “Flammable” icon (flame).

Shock Hazard Icon

This sign was found on a circuit breaker panel. Like the “Do Not Discard” sign, this would also be considered an icon because it is a literal depiction of the risk of shock that a user faces when handling the equipment. In situations where a warning message is being conveyed through a sign, it is more effective to use icons over symbols, as symbols cannot be recognized unless learned, which could potentially put a user at danger.

Handicap Icon

This sign was found in the parking lot of my apartment complex and is one of the most universally recognized signs used. The graphic imitates a person sitting in a wheelchair, making it an icon, as it does not abstract in anyway from its signifier.

Hazard Symbol

This is the universally recognized symbol for “Hazard”. Without any prior knowledge of this sign, a user has no indication of what it represents. In cars, pressing this button activates a driver’s hazard lights. One thing to note about this sign is that it is intentionally colored red to add to the effect that it is a warning sign.

A/C Vent Symbols

This pair of symbols is used for A/C vents in cars, to signify the vent being closed (Left symbol) or open (Right symbol). These are symbols because they do not imitate their signifiers. Cars utilize a lot of symbols to represent specific issues, and oftentimes have a learning curve for first time drivers.

Summary

In conclusion, signs surround us everywhere. They are a large part of how we navigate this world, and without them, the ability to communicate ideas and meanings would be a much different story. Iconography continues to evolve every single day and is especially important in the context of UX Design, as thoughtful symbols and icons lead to greater user experiences as a whole.