Learning to See Iconography

It’s evident that icons and symbols are everywhere and can be found in the apps we use, on websites we visit as well as in everyday life. How and what do icons and symbols communicate to the people who interpret them? How can they be used to communicate more effectively? I aim to answer these questions by covering the basics of semiotics and categories of signs, along with my own research findings for this topic.


Semiotics is the study of signs, and it defines a “sign” as anything that creates meaning and can be used to represent something else. Symbols and icons are both signs that represent common objects by virtue of association or similarity in appearance. According to Peirce’s theory, there are three parts to a sign: the signifier (the form of a sign), signified (the concept or object that’s represented), and interpretant (what the audience makes of the sign).

Three Categories of Signs (or Signifiers)

Signs can be categorized as one of three main modes: symbol, icon, and index.

  • A symbol has no resemblance between the signifier and the signified. It is assigned arbitrarily or is accepted as societal convention. The connection between the signifier and signified must be learned. Examples: alphabets, numbers, national flags, etc.
  • An icon has a physical resemblance to the signified. Therefore, the connection between the signifier and signified does not necessarily have to be learned. Example: a photograph or cartoon of a bicycle.
  • An index might not resemble the signified but show evidence of what’s being represented. It is not arbitrarily assigned and is directly connected in some way to the signified. However, the connection between the signifier and signified may have to be learned. Examples: an image of smoke to indicate fire.

Symbols vs. Icons

Since I focused on symbols and icons for my research assignment, it’s essential to clearly distinguish apart these two categories of signs. Symbols are at the opposite end from icons since they do not resemble what they stand for and have to be learned by people to understand what they mean.

Examples of symbols

Icons, on the other hand, are similar to the actual object and anyone can tell what it stands for due to the resemblance.

Examples of icons

Research Assignment

I had some errands to run yesterday and thought it would be the perfect opportunity to find some symbols and icons in everyday life for this research assignment. Throughout the day, I spotted an endless number of symbols and icons at the locations I visited. I chose the ones that were unique or I was not familiar with. Interestingly enough, it turns out that I was more drawn towards icons than symbols! Here are my findings:

When I was writing my annotations, it was a bit tricky to categorize them as an icon or a symbol at first. From my observations, I came to the conclusion that all of these signs are icons as they bear a physical resemblance to what’s being represented, giving the audience a general idea of what the sign means or stands for. Symbols are supposed to be arbitrary and must be culturally learned, but these signs visibly show a connection to what they are representing. For example, the mother’s room sign shows a mother cradling her baby, which makes the connection to the signified.

Conclusion: From doing this research assignment, I was able to gain a better understanding of the importance of iconography and how there are different types of signs that communicate to people in different ways. I was also able to see how icons and symbols can be used in design to communicate more effectively. Now I have a better idea of when to use one type of sign over another and what type of icon to use depending on the specifics of what I want to communicate.

Thanks for reading!

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