I left my desk to hunt for icons

I’m a full-time student at DesignLab’s UX Academy. Consequently, I sit at my desk for roughly eight hours a day, and sometimes more when revising assignments. One of this week’s assignments required me to leave my computer (read: take a break… sort of…) and walk outside. It involved identifying iconography I use every day IRL. It was necessary to understand the different types of symbols and icons that people use, how they are learnt and understood, and the ease and manner they use to convey information. An additional exercise was to recreate the icons.

The activity

So I set out to a shopping mall thirty minutes away to carry out my research. The challenge was taking photos and sketches of icons on signs and storefronts without looking too noticeable to security guards. (There have been a few terrorist attacks here so taking photos of the mall is frowned upon.) I weaved in and out of stores while being mindful of the cues I usually use when looking for items. Sometimes, store attendants asked me what and why I was sketching because it seemed to put them at unease. The exercise lasted about an hour and a half.

And now….. The results!

  1. Direction sign in the parking lot

This is an arrow symbol on the driveway outside the mall. It indicates the direction drivers should take when driving their cars in the parking lot. It also shows pedestrians which direction they should expect a car to come from so that they can be safe as they walk. In my case, I had to be careful that I was not standing in front of a car approaching me because the arrow was pointing in my direction. An arrow is a universally understood as a provider of direction. Since this one was painted on the ground, it implied that it was giving direction to traffic outside the mall.

2. Fire alarm

This is a photo of the fire alarm trigger on a wall inside a shopping mall. Its bright red color made it easy to notice from the corner of my eye. At its top is an icon of a house on fire. It is easy to understand because it shows a flame coming from a house. The implied idea is that when the mall is on fire, the button should be pressed.

3. Ice dispenser indicator

This is a photo of a button for broken ice at the front of a fridge. It indicates that it should be pressed when a person wants broken ice from the ice dispenser. Even though it is right above the dispenser, understanding what it means is not immediate. Someone using the dispenser for the first time will usually press the button first to see what will come out so that they can understand the button’s purpose.

4. Period-after-opening (PAO) symbol

This is a symbol on the back label of a skin care product I use every day.. It means that the product should be used within six months of opening. Truth be told, not many people pay attention to this label on products because its meaning is not very obvious. The symbol shows an opened container with its lid hovering above it. The writing is not so clear. The connection between the “M” and “Months” is not easy to make.

5. Wash care symbol

This is a photo on a glue stick’s side that shows at what temperature the glure can be washed off clothing and other items without residue. It is a symbol that follows conventions of wash care indicators on clothing. Before a person understand what this symbol means, he needs to have learnt the meaning of wash care symbols. I chose this icon because I get glue on my clothes sometimes when working on craft.

6. Freezer drawer icons

This is a group of icons on the top drawer of the freezer compartment of the fridge. The first icon denotes meat products, the second is ice cream, and the third is chicken products. This implies that these products can be stored in that drawer. It is easy to understand because the icons look resemble their signified objects closely. Icons like these in a fridge can be used to organize food items and find them fast when needed e.g. when preparing dinner.

7. Steam iron dial indicator

This is an indicator on the dial of a steam iron. Steam is indicated by an icon of a cloud with force pushing from below it. Turning the dial gives varying amounts of steam depending on what the person needs when ironing an article. When the pointer below the dial is set at “0”, steam stops being produced. As the dial is turned and the pointer approaches the steam icon, the iron produces more steam. Apart from producing enough heat to smoothen creases, steam production is an important function of this iron. The dial enables changing preferences. The symbol makes it easy to gauge the degree of steam to get.


This is part of the learning process since I’m rather new to UX. This exercise taught me when icons can be more useful than words, and when icons can be more useful with words too.