The issue of diversity in icon design

Do we have the right icons at hand to represent all humans?

Icons play a role in how we think

Icons are a way of communication and, due to their simplified graphical form, they may even be the only language around that everybody understands. Icons have a variety of uses — on websites, apps, on marketing material, as door signs, traffic signs, etc. — which means they surround us and mediate our interactions with other people, with our environment, and with companies and their products.

Similarly to spoken language, the icons available to us shape what kind of messages we can send through them. To illustrate this, we can take the example of learning a new language. Probably, most of us who are not native English speakers were in the situation of wanting to say something in English but simply missing the right words to express it. At the same time, different languages have vocabularies to refer to feelings or situations that we may have never thought of in our native language, most likely because they might be lacking the words. The influence of our language can go as far as determining the way we think, according to researcher Lera Boroditsky in her article How Language Shapes Thought.

Due to this important role icons play in communication and the way language affects how we think, icon designers are thus placed in a powerful position to influence the global human conversation. When the icons available to us are limited to stereotypical ideas about, let’s say, how a manager or a doctor look like, the people who do not fit the stereotype are left out of this global dialogue. For example, if all “doctor” or “business person” icons available depict a white-skin male, then it becomes hard for all of us to imagine that someone of a different skin color or gender could be able to do the same job. Alternatively, if companies use white skin people icons in their communication to customers, groups of non-white consumers might feel excluded from the economy.

When the icons available to us are limited to stereotypical ideas about, let’s say, how a manager or a doctor look like, the people who do not fit the stereotype are left out of this global dialogue.

The lack of diversity in iconography

On Iconfinder, stereotypical icons are found both among the free icons and the premium ones. For example, we sometimes see exclusively male icons for “doctor” or “business person” or only female icons for “nurse”. To illustrate this point, let’s take a look at a few searches and the available results.

Among the top search results for “doctor”, we predominantly see male icons.

Top search results for “doctor” on Iconfinder

At the same time, among the top search results for “nurse”, most of the icons represent a (white) female.

Top search results for “nurse” on Iconfinder

When looking at the top search results for “business person”, we observe that most icons are male.

Top search results for “business person” on Iconfinder

The many dimensions of diversity

Diversity is the term we use to refer to a group including people of various genders, ages, skin colors, ethnicities, religions, sexual orientations, cultures, etc. The idea of diversity invites us to clear our heads of any stereotypes we might have about people. There are many women working as doctors or business managers and many men working as nurses. Diversity is thus about staying open-minded about what kinds of people can do what types of jobs and especially about acknowledging the differences between humans and celebrating them.

In the world of icon design, diversity is as important as aesthetic appeal or design quality, but it is often overlooked. Some customers have already pointed out the lack of diversity among icons on Iconfinder. These customers are often looking for avatars, where the offer of icons consists again mainly of white-skin people. This clearly indicates that there is a great opportunity for adding more diverse icons, as the demand for them is increasing and their supply is currently low.

Diversity is about staying open-minded about what kinds of people can do what types of jobs and especially about acknowledging the differences between humans and celebrating them.

Top search results for “avatar” on Iconfinder

Apart from professions, another way to think about diversity and inclusion is around the main seasonal festivities. For example, there is a lot of demand for Christmas icons, as Christmas is one of the main festivities in Christian countries. However, incorporating religious elements in such holiday-related icons might leave out two potential customers. First, there are many people who celebrate Christmas but do so because of tradition and not because of religion. To them, Christmas is based on centuries-old customs and might have different meanings: for some, it is for cheering up the cold winter months, for some others it is about food, about family get-togethers, gifting, and so on.

The second type of customers are companies. When companies use these icons for commercial purposes, they usually avoid icons associated with religion. For example, icons that represent “baby Jesus”, “the cross”, “Virgin Mary” or “the angel” are indeed Christmas-related but are not suitable for business purposes, as they do not appeal to customers who do not celebrate Christmas for religious reasons. As an example, the set below is beautifully drawn yet it contains religious elements (the menorah, baby Jesus and the manger) that might make it less interesting in the eyes of some customers.

Winter icon set by Asa Sprunger

Bringing diversity to icons

Nevertheless, there are a few examples where diversity is nicely incorporated into icon design. To illustrate what we mean by diverse icons, we looked for some icon sets that we consider as a good example of diversity. For instance, the avatars set below represents people of different skin colors, genders, professions, ethnicities, religions and ages.

Diversity Avatars icon sets by Iconify

Another example is this set containing avatars of women of different professions.

Female Professionals icon set by Vectto

In the case of icons for holidays and festivities, instead of portraying religious symbols in, let’s say, Christmas sets, a better practice is to draw winter-themed icons. For Christmas, it could be snow, sledding, the decorated tree, candles, skating, etc.

Here is a good example of a Christmas set with no religious elements:

Christmas and New Year Line set by Kucingklawu Std.

Does diversity mean customisation?

As mentioned before, icons are supposed to be simplified and generic so that they can be easily recognizable — even in small sizes. So, isn’t it counterintuitive to talk about diversity in icons? Not necessarily. Creating diverse icons does not mean having to customize them to each person’s specific features like, for example, hairstyle or nose shape. Rather, an icon can represent a certain group of people and still remain simplified and recognizable.

How about going fully generic?

Instead of drawing more detailed icons, could the problem of diversity be avoided by icons that are as generic as possible? In order words, could outline and glyph icons solve the issue? Let’s look at some examples.

The icon below is representing an executive. It is clearly a male, but it does not make any reference to anything else. However, details such as the hair type may be giving out that the person is most-likely not afro-haired.

Alternatively, it is part of a long debate whether an icon such as the one below can be representative of both genders or is only male.

Finally, could the solution to include all of us diverse human beings be through the simplified icon below? Making the icon completely impersonal by removing all details could definitely be an easy solution since no human being could possibly be left out.

The topic of diversity is an excellent occasion for all of us to start thinking about what we want the future of icons to look like. But, most importantly, to reflect on how we want to design the language that everybody understands. Do we want an impersonal representation of a human being for us all or do we instead want icons that represent all types of human beings?

This blog post is included in the Iconfinder designer report Q1 2019, released on January 3. Check out the Icon designer reports section of our blog.

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