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Icon Design and Signage

Icons and pictograms permeate our modern world, as street symbols, transport iconography, wayfinding in cities and markers of utilities like restrooms and police stations. Their ability to impart meaning while transcending language and culture makes them some of the most elegant Design solutions and their mandate to communicate whole messages with so few mechanisms makes working within their constraints a truly challenging task. In recent years, many logo-symbols have interchangably become icons, as evinced in any modern smartphone grid menu, while in the broader scheme some have even become iconic, such as the WWF's panda from Landor and Associates. Many icons and symbols have become so ubiquitous that it would seem absurd to go back to using their written counterparts.

Some vector icons made for the User Interface of a mail application more recently

As icons spread their domain into the increasingly compact devices that now mark the modern information age, their trademark frugality of space and abundance of meaning makes them more important than ever before. That is not to say all icons are great or equal, as the early Windows phone icons made all too clear, bad icon Design is still abundant. The execution of good icons requires a particularly astute attention to detail and makes dramatic use of the Gestalt principles that so fundamentally govern visual perception, even today.

Some raster icons made for the project back in 2009

When icons succeed they become minimalist masterpieces of execution via imaginative reworkings of very rigid contraints of space and detail. But to bring this conversation to the stark reality - when they fail and are incomprehensibe, they cause confusion, frustration, undue stress and anxiety. Most people have used a software product at some point and thought...

"what is that icon supposed to mean? what would happen if I click it? why isn't it clear or explained somewhere?"

Designers must carefully balance the decision to supplant text with iconography against their legibility and availability of clarity (such as hovering for a tooltip). This article (HARLEY, 2014) from the NN/g puts the problem in perspective. If your product requires icons, you can increase your chances for correct interpretations by working with a seasoned icon Designer and you should supplement such a decision with the established HCI literature that has repeatedly proven that icons must be conventionalised before ever being deployed without textual accompaniment.


Drop me a line If your project requires custom icons Designed with real attention to detail, in either raster or vector formats and packaged for a range of potential uses.