The Invisible Language of Icons

The purpose of this assignment was to collect and evaluate the purpose of icons that guide us in our day-to-day lives. In an homage to the prompt’s first question, I selected icons that exist in my immediate, physical space. From the top down (see below), I included: elevator buttons for my apartment building, a sign for the stairs in my building, and my Samsung television remote.

I replicated these icons in Sketch.

Icons allow me to interact with the objects they allude to, whether or not those actions were intended by the industrial designers of my common objects. For example, the buttons on my elevator allow me to hold the door open for a young woman struggling with her laundry basket or, if I’m feeling petty, close the door quickly before anyone else can enter (probably not intended!). Stairs are stairs — I can sweat my way up 12 floors or get in touch with the humanity of my aging, 26-year-old knees on the way back down. But, if I need a quiet place to take a phone call, the purpose of my stairwell becomes greater than simply a means of transportation. Regardless of the purpose I assign to the objects, however, I know exactly what I’m interacting with by recognizing icons.

Icons are everywhere. And, as we’ve learned in our curriculum, icons are generally recycled for the sake of recognizability (barring a creative breakthrough, that is). In the case of the elevator, it can’t be further simplified — swapping the center line for elevator doors would take up more space and demand more strokes. The same can be said of the stairs, which are an accurate representation of a real staircase in two dimensions. Since arrows signify motion, the divergent arrows mimic the opening of doors while the convergent arrows mimic doors closing and, in the case of the source button, the inclusive motion of a television signal. The red button on my remote is the universal symbol for power, while the source button is perhaps a bit less ubiquitous. However, the arrow entering the enclosed space alludes to the receipt of something, which, in the case of a television, is the signal. The use of the octagon for the run stop button alludes to the standard shape of stop signs, though I would have appreciated a more urgent color (similar to the call button below). Conversely, the alarming red of the power button on my television’s remote screams “shut off” more than “on and off.” Still, these stylistic details play second fiddle to the universal signals of motion, power, and common physical objects. As long as I can keep recognizing them, I can use objects in my environment, whether or not for their intended purposes, with ease.

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