Learning to See Iconography

Icons surround us. “Little miracle workers,” as designer Jon Hicks calls them, icons serve many functions in our world. They surpass language barriers to give warnings, directions, and instructions. They convey our emotions. They communicate ideas. They are so ingrained into our human language, we could barely go a day without seeing icons. By opening our eyes, we can see that even during a simple errand we are surrounded by icons.

To prove this point, I decided to document icons during my recent trip to the grocery store. From the moment I got in my car, I was surrounded.

First, I notice a knob with symbols for headlights. Since it was dark, I turned it to the “on” position.

My dashboard was lit up with symbols. The icon of a gas pump indicates the gas gauge. I had almost a full tank, so I was good to go.

As I drove, multiple road signs with icons guided my way. Outside the grocery store, a sign with an x through the letter “P” told me this was a no parking area.

On the front door, an icon notified customers not to smoke in or near the store. A wealth of other logos act as icons of sorts as well, giving the customer a variety of messages. This store cards customers under 21 years old when buying tobacco products. This store accepts WIC credits. You can send a money order here. A post office is found inside.

As I get a cart, I notice icons that give me safety instructions about how to safely use the cart with children.

Inside the store, I pass by the coffee grinder. The machine has several elegant icons to illustrate the different levels of ground coffee settings. I love how quite illustrative these are.

Another icon of a mortar and pestle shows me where to find the pharmacy department. It’s interesting to note how archaic this symbol really is. My local pharmacist definitely doesn’t use a mortar and pestle in her day’s work, but the symbol still persists.

Near the exit, an icon of a man and woman shows customers where the restroom is. While this symbol is pretty universal, the fact that it symbolizes a restroom is a learned response. There’s nothing literal about it that says “restroom,” like perhaps the outline of a toilet. Yet the “gingerbread man” and woman in the dress (even though many women don’t typically wear dresses anymore) indicate the restroom in many countries on earth.

Near the exit doors, customers can sanitize their hands under the automatic hand sanitizer dispenser. This is a relatively new addition to the store, though the style of the icon is similar to icons much older. This hand looks like it could belong to one of the gingerbread people in the restroom sign above.

The exit door also had icons to warn customers that these doors slide. Arrows at the bottom indicate the side-to-side motion. Yellow circles alert patrons. Even if they couldn’t read, the bright color, associated with caution signs, says that something’s up. Don’t try to push open these doors in the typical fashion.

That’s just an example of the multiple icons I noticed on a typical errand. Take a step into the world of iconography and notice the symbols around you. You’ll be surprised how much they affect your daily life.

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