Design explained: icons & symbols

plastic free icons designed for surfers against sewage by leap

Icons and symbols surround us; they are such an integral part of communication that we scarcely stop to register them, and some have become so embedded in our visual language that we know their meaning without necessarily knowing the root source of the design.

These design assets serve as an important visual aid in any graphical communication. Their primary function is to serve as a common visual language, removing the possibility of open interpretation or ambiguity. Clever use of iconography and symbols direct users to what we want them to see, making it easier to digest and much faster to process.

What’s The Difference Between An Icon And A Symbol?

The difference between an icon and a symbol is whether or not the design is a visual representation of something specific.  The outline of a martini glass is widely understood to symbolise a bar, so it is a symbol because it represents a bar not an actual martini glass.  An icon is a simplified representation of something, such as a telephone representing an actual telephone.  Often the difference is blurred, or the example has morphed over time (more on that later), and people will refer to a symbol as an icon and vice-versa. 

Aren’t They All Icons?

It is common for any simple graphic representation to be referred to as an icon, particularly in the digital space.  On a computer, several symbols are universally understood (the hour glass symbol to signify loading or waiting for example, and the radiating wifi symbol).  In some cases, what started out as an icon has now become a symbol as technology has advanced.  Ask any millennial (or younger) to point out the save “icon” on a computer and they will do so easily, but ask them what it is a visual representation of and many will struggle because they have never had to use a floppy disc.  The floppy disc icon is now the symbol to save your work.  Sorry if you remember floppy discs and are now feeling your age…

Save Icon by Daniel Bruce on Iconscout

What Defines An Icon Or A Symbol?

In modern digital and print usage sets of icons and symbols are characterised by a distinct set of qualities or rules that they adhere to. They will share the same form (the bounding shape that they fit within, or the core shapes that are used to construct them), have aesthetic unity (the same line weights, corner radius’ etc) and be recognisable as the same set because of shared properties or an element that is consistent across the entire set (a brand colour, for example). Graphic rules that create aesthetic unity such as line weights or common shapes may also contribute to the ions or symbols being recognisable as a set, and vice versa.

When Do We Use Icons And Symbols?

Icons and symbols are used in a variety of scenarios: when rapid comprehension is required (such as with road signs); when space is limited (as it is on a web page or clothing label); or, when language might be a barrier as it is in airports where people who speak a huge range of languages need to understand essential instructions and messages quickly and easily. 

In the realm of print and digital design, a brand might commission a range of frequently used symbols or icons to use across their communications so that at every touch point their visual identity is consistent and recognisable.  Perhaps the icons or symbols need to represent something for which there is no existing common symbol or set of symbols, or perhaps the existing symbol is too universal and a set needs to be created to allow for variation within the theme.

How You Might Use Icons and Symbols

A set of icons or symbols could be used for a single output, or be a brand asset that are used across every channel of your business’s communications. 

  • In printed material such as brochures and reports icons and symbols can be used to separate chapters, key offerings or services, or to bring your brand to life and break up copy. 
  • On websites and apps they can be used for navigation (menu, account, shopping basket etc) or as graphic elements denoting different services, for example. 
  • Signage, be that on buildings or vehicles or way marking around your property, is one area where symbols and icons can be used to create brand continuity and an immersive brand experience. 
  • You can use them in short films (in the intro or credits, or as chapter breaks and transitions) or animate them.
  • If you have a lot of information that you need to convey and are considering an infographic then a set of icons and symbols can come in really useful, creating a thread that weaves through the infographic and ties everything together. 

How We Create Icons And Symbols

When a set of icons and symbols are commissioned, we first of all need to agree upon the list of designs that we’ll need to create.  This involves looking at all possible uses and making sure that we create a full set in a single exercise.  We then take the client’s brand guidelines and create a set of rules to work within.  All icons and symbols are created within a grid, and that grid will include a boundary so that when set next to each other, every icon or symbol has the correct amount of space around it.  We’ll decide upon the base geometric shapes that we’ll build the icons or symbols in the set out of, and define the elements that will create aesthetic unity – the common angles, radius’, line weights (light and heavy options) and colours.  We’ll then decide upon any elements that will be common to every symbol or icon in the set, such as a shape or accent that will mark the symbol out as belonging to the parent brand.

Designs are then created, and reviewed internally by our design team to ensure comprehension, consistency, and also to make sure that the designs are as simple as possible with minimal decoration.  Once the client has approved the designs, we then work them up in a variety of sizes, brand colour options and file types, so that the set can be utilised across a multitude of outputs quickly and easily.

Things To Consider When Commissioning A Set Of Icons Or Symbols

  • What is the primary purpose of the icons or symbols that you’re commissioning, and what other possible uses could you have for them?  You don’t want to create a small or limited set and then realise that you need more in a few months when you want to use the symbols from your signage in a report and you don’t have a set that covers all of your needs.
  • Your brand guidelines and aesthetic (colours, fonts, illustrative style and so on) will be very important to ensure that your designer creates a set of symbols that are instantly recognisable as being “you”. 
  • Icons and symbols are by their very nature extremely simplified and lacking in decoration.  That’s not to say that if your brand aesthetic is very ornate you can’t have a set of icons, it will simply inform the design.  We will work with you to set realistic expectations of what is possible in terms of functional iconography and symbols.

If you’re interested in commissioning a set of icons or symbols then please get in touch using the contact details below. We’d love to have a chat about we could do for you.

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