Learning to See Iconography

Iconography Research & Documentation

Seeing iconography on a daily basis makes it almost invisible to me. I see the icons, and once I’ve learned their meaning, I don’t tend to pay attention to these icons on a conscious level. This week, I had to specifically pay attention to the signs, symbols and icons around me and really try to interpret what they represent.

This assignment brought me back to my childhood to think about what my earliest memories were of learning iconography. One of my first memories of this was when I was 5 years old. I fell in love with the Disney classic “The Little Mermaid” and I was absolutely obsessed with watching it every day. Literally, every morning! So much so, that instead of waiting or asking someone to play the movie for me, I learned how to use a VCR so that I could put the VHS tape in myself and play it repeatedly.

At this point, I didn’t know how to read of course, so the labels on the buttons wouldn’t have made any sense to me, I just recognized the media symbols for functions of Play, Rewind, Fast-forward, Stop, Pause, Eject. To this day, in my adulthood, and across all sorts of media and touch screen apps, those same symbols and icons are still the standard ones used to represent the same functions. So for the sheer nostalgia and prevalence factor, I chose to research and recreate those media icons.

Panasonic VCR

Until this week, I never really gave it much thought as to how these icons actually came about to represent those functions. Why does Play look like a sideways triangle, why does Pause look like the number eleven? I never questioned these things, I just accepted them for what they were, especially since they’re global standards that continue to appear in all of our media players.

Researching some of the origins, I learned that even these standards don’t necessarily have one interpretation that is agreed upon by everyone, but they all seem to agree that it has to do with relationships to old technology, such as the reel-to-reel audio recorder. For the Play button, it seems to be an arrowhead pointing in the direction that the tape would roll, and even though we don’t necessarily use tape anymore for our iPods and DVD players, we still kept using these icons.

For my next sign, I chose to recreate a washroom symbol. Usually it’s pretty basic, there’s an icon for a person that looks like a male, and one that looks like a female. It’s basic human function to have to go to the bathroom, and even if you didn’t understand the language that bathroom sign was written in, you usually understood the meaning based on the icon. For washrooms that work for either gender, you usually see both the male and female symbols side by side, or some variation of that. Lately, in the last few years, there’s been so much discussion in regards to gender neutral washrooms.

Then I started noticing washroom symbols that weren’t just a male or female, but a combination of the two. It was still easy enough for people to understand what it represented, yet on another level, it provided an establishment a sort of nonchalance towards genders. In a way, it seemed like the establishment was saying that it didn’t matter whether you were a male, female, transgender, or gender fluid — everyone was welcome! Sometimes they even followed up with comedic text such as “We don’t care” or “Whichever” to add a hint of open friendliness.

Gender Neutral Washrooms

Next I used an image of a Transit sign for the transit system in the Metro Vancouver area. These signs really only started popping up a few years ago, before that, it was harder to locate bus stops or skytrian entrances because the signs were so small or hidden. So unless you were a local and knew the routes well, it was hard to find what you were looking for sometimes. That was apparent to me especially when a tourist asked me a few years ago to direct them to the skytrian entrance, I pointed up the road and indicated the giant T symbol, which really helped as it was clearly seen from a distance. Before that sign was there, it was harder to explain, I’d probably have to indicate the number of blocks, street names, or surrounding establishments.

Transit Bus Signs: Old narrow sign vs New wider sign

The crosswalk signs are something that’s ingrained into you as a child, you learned to look both ways when you cross and to obey the crosswalk signs. The whitish lit up person taking a step meant it was safe to walk, and the reddish hand meant stop. Not only did the symbol explain the actions, but the colours of the lights themselves were also an indicator.

Lastly, I chose to recreate the stop sign because its octagonal shape, combined with its colour, is unique to its function. From a distance it’s easy to spot, yet even if you couldn’t see the colour or read the words, the shape itself is exclusive to the stop sign, so people would still understand it’s meaning.

Overall, I found the iconography research was a great reminder to open our own eyes and see all the different meanings that are represented around us, and possibly question them too from time to time.

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