Everyday Iconography

Taking a second look at icons in everyday life

I think we all know the meaning of these three signs

It’s amazing how much we fail to consciously observe the use of icons in our daily lives. Maybe “fail” is the wrong choice of word, but rather we have been conditioned to recognize the symbols as a part of our daily routines. I suppose that’s what makes the symbols good design — the fact that we can subconsciously take in a visual, or symbol, and understand the message without further verbal or written context.

For example, a symbol that I see every day in restaurants, cafes, at parks or at work, is the “woman” icon.

woman icon pictured above

This icon represents a gender specific area, which is indicated by the “woman” wearing a cute skirt. I know many of the feminists in my life like to roll their eyes at this icon when they give it a second thought, and to their credit it is becoming more common for these signs to not exist in more progressive establishments. Many restaurants in Vancouver (CANADA) are creating gender neutral washrooms, where both men and woman use the same facilities. This shows you that just because a symbol is recognized and established, doesn’t mean that it’s in a final state. Symbols can evolve with societal progressions (or changes), and technological advancements.

Symbols and icons also vary depending on where you live. For example, in Vancouver there are water busses that take passengers across a body of water to their destination, as well as a Skytrain (train above ground) and a Canada Line (under ground train).

Vancouver transit icons, courtesy of https://owenlett.com

This would probably be a bit difficult to differentiate one transit icon from the next for someone who isn’t familiar with public transit in Vancouver, but nonetheless, the icons themselves are globally recognized to be associated with public transportation.

example of app icons

I took a stab at quickly sketching some different symbols that I found on a walk around my neighbourhood today. This exercise is not only important in regards to recognizing everyday symbols and icons that we subconsciously interact with, but to get an idea of how you would approach creating a vector icon.

accessibility icon and sketch

For example, when sketching the accessibility icon, I noticed that the icon is mostly made up of circles and rectangles. As for the meridian symbol (seen below), I would approach this with lines and a polygon shape for the “meridian”.

Meridian symbol and sketch

After I completed this exercise, I realized I would probably never look at symbols or icons the same. It’s very interesting to look at our everyday surroundings with a critical eye, seeing what you would do differently, how you would do it differently and why.

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