Signs and Symbols in UX and Beyond

Signs and symbols are everywhere — on roads, in stores, on public transportation, in the phone applications we use, and so on. They are key visual components that help us understand how to act in our physical and digital environments, and often they are so effective we don’t even notice their impact in our day to day lives.

For example, when traveling, the importance of signs and symbols becomes extremely apparent when trying to navigate a new city, especially when we don’t understand the native language. Imagine looking for familiar signs in a subway station to know which train to get on or how to exit the building. Some of these signs look like the object they represent (for example the image of a door) while others represent an abstract concept that we’ve learned over time. For instance the red, octagon shape of a stop sign is a nearly universally recognizable symbol. It doesn’t matter if the word “STOP” is written in English, French, or Burmese, we understand it’s meaning based on a learned, societal convention.

When traveling, we often look for universally recognizable signs such as the stop sign pictured above. Other times we must learn new symbols, such as the logo for a local transportation system.

So what does all of this have to do with UX design? Today when you open up a mobile or web app, you are almost guaranteed to see signs and symbols, frequently in the form of icons. Icons are important because they create a visual hierarchy, highlight important information, simplify information, provide context, and enhance understanding.

In short, when creating icons and symbols in digital design, using relevant or recognizable signs is important. A user opening up a new app for the first time is similar to a person walking into the subway station in a new country. They will use the icons and visual cues to understand where they are, what to do next, and how to accomplish their goals. The closer you can relate a new icon to an already recognizable symbol or sign, the quicker a user can learn to use your application, and the more positive their experience will be.

So whether someone is navigating their way through an unfamiliar country or using a mobile app for the first time, the intentional use of signs and symbols is one important way to help them accomplish their goals.