A brief look at icon imagery in my environment

A collection of planetary pictograms. Image credit: Kurzgesagt

Icons can be found everywhere. They’re all around us all the time. You see them on street signs, coffee makers, and digital interfaces. We use them to quickly convey meaning where we have limited time or space. Websites, for example, may switch from a text-based to an icon-based navigation on devices with limited width. Street signs must communicate important information, in only a couple seconds, while drivers swiftly zoom by. Icons are easy to take for granted because they’re meant to behave invisibly. And even when we don’t understand an icon’s meaning we’re more likely to ignore it than find out more.

I started paying attention to some of the icons in my environment in accordance with Charles Sanders Peirce’s triadic model of signs. According to him, the way we interpret a sign is what gives it its meaning. Here’s what I found.

Did you notice the lightbulb button doesn’t have a green orb to indicate its state? That’s because the light itself is the indicator.

This fridge dispenser uses pictograms on buttons to indicate what will come out when you press the lever. Pictograms are basically icons that resemble real world objects. In this case, we’d expect pressing on the pictogram of a glass with uneven ice chunks to give us crushed ice. Similarly, we’d expect the button with a lightbulb icon to turn on the light. These icons are accompanied by labels to further clarify how these icons should be interpreted. The liquid in that glass isn’t orange juice, it’s water. But how cool would it be to have orange juice on tap?

The center console in this car uses some pictograms incorporated with symbols and indexical signs. Symbols are icons that are assigned arbitrarily but are accepted as societal convention. A great example is the red triangle at the top that’s used to turn on the car’s hazard lights. This icon isn’t imitating a physical object nor can it be automatically inferred. It’s a symbol because it cannot be inferred and must be learned.

Indexical signs (or ‘indexes’) are different from pictograms and symbols in that they might not resemble anything but are also not arbitrarily assigned. It has some kind of connection to the object it’s representing. The four buttons on either side of the console use curvy arrows pointing upward to indicate heat.

Pictograms, Symbols, and Indexes, the three modes of signs according to Charles Sanders Peirce, aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. An icon could incorporate all three without breaking any rules. So why do we, as designers, bother identifying them as distinct modes? In short, they help us gain a greater understanding of how icons are crafted. Once you understand the rules, you can use them. And if you dare to be an artist, you can break them too.