Icons, stemming from the Greek word “eikōn,” meaning “image,” are one of the most used graphic elements in our digital age, but their significance can be traced back to the earliest human civilisations.
Humans have been conveying messages using symbols and pictures for over 40,000 years, predating the emergence of any written language. Pictorial symbols constitute the foundation of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, Chinese characters, and the contemporary phonetic alphabet. In the modern world, roughly 7,000 languages and numerous dialects are spoken. However, the one language that surpasses these barriers does not comprise words but rather images.
Icons today are commonly used in digital interfaces to enhance user experience, increase accessibility, and simplify complex concepts. Despite their importance, many people overlook icons’ significance and underestimate their impact.
Icons serve as a powerful visual language, enabling them to swiftly and succinctly communicate messages and actions to users of varying languages and literacy levels. For instance, the “home” icon on websites and apps invariably takes the shape of a house, effortlessly conveying the concept of a homepage. Similarly, the “search” icon adopts the form of a magnifying glass, symbolising the search function. The iconic floppy disk in Microsoft Word, serving as a symbol for saving documents, is a prime example of how deeply entrenched icons have become in our daily digital interactions.
Even those not well-versed in the art of icon design can empathise with the exasperation that arises from software employing a poorly crafted set of functions. The feeling of helplessness that ensues from not being able to locate the desired feature is a universal experience that can lead to a loss of productivity and hindered progress. A well-designed set of icons not only streamlines the user experience but also elevates the software’s overall aesthetic appeal, resulting in a more efficient and aesthetically pleasing workflow.
As a leading design agency, we have a deep appreciation for the profound impact of iconography, especially when it comes to creating educational resources. Our highly skilled team of designers meticulously conceptualises new icons that seamlessly integrate with the branding of each learning course. These icons are integral to the success of the course, serving as beacons that guide both students and teachers through the material and signal specific exercises or sections. With many learners being non-native speakers, it is critical that the icons accurately represent the assigned tasks to facilitate their understanding of the course content. As such, our team devotes extensive attention to detail, crafting visually arresting icons that convey the intended message with maximum impact.
Crafting icons poses inherent challenges, particularly when it comes to their relevance over time. Some icons that were once ubiquitous may no longer serve their intended purpose or may be unfamiliar to younger generations. For instance, a 10-year-old may not understand why a floppy disc symbol represents saving a document in Microsoft Word or why an old-fashioned paper clip is used to send email attachments. As technology evolves and cultural references change, it’s essential to continually reassess the relevance of icons to ensure that they continue to convey their intended message effectively.
To provide valuable insights and guidance, we are delighted to welcome our Head of Creative, Adam Brightman. In this interview, Adam will answer some of the most frequently asked questions regarding creating icons, the challenges that come with the process, and practical solutions to overcome them.
What is the most crucial aspect to consider when creating an icon?
When it comes to designing icons, clarity is crucial. The ability to convey meaning quickly and easily is essential for any successful icon. It must be immediately recognisable and memorable, providing a clear visual representation of the intended concept. Without clarity, the icon runs the risk of being ignored, misinterpreted, or even forgotten entirely.
How do you come up with ideas for new icons?
Generating ideas for new icons requires a blend of creativity and research. One approach is to examine recognisable physical objects and devise methods for simplifying them into iconographic representations. This technique is known as Skeuomorphism, which became prevalent in the 2010s, with Apple at the forefront of creating user-friendly navigation for their products through lifelike icons. This concept is when icons emulate real-world objects in the digital interface. However, with design trends shifting towards flatter and more minimalistic styles, designing icons that effectively convey necessary information has become more challenging.
Market research is also essential to understand the cultural context in which the icon will be employed. Keeping abreast of contemporary imagery is equally important, as it enables designers to create icons that are both timely and relevant to users. By being creative and doing research, designers can create effective icons that capture the intended message.
How do you ensure that icons are distinguishable from competitors?
Designing icons that are both recognisable and unique can be challenging, especially when trying to stand out from competitors. To ensure that icons are distinguishable from others, designers can use familiar shapes and pictograms but stylise them in a visually different way. One approach is to incorporate unique stylistic elements from a brand’s identity.
How do you ensure that icons are intuitive and helpful to learners?
Ensuring that icons are both intuitive and useful to learners requires a strategic approach. Designers must strive to create familiar and easily recognisable icons while maintaining strong associations with specific shapes and pictograms.
To achieve this, thorough research into the intended market and cultural context is essential. Additionally, designers can incorporate elements of the overall course identity or webpage design when stylising icons, making them more visually cohesive and memorable. By using a thoughtful and intentional design process, designers can create icons that effectively communicate essential information to learners.
How do you make the icons align with the overall course identity?
There are many ways to integrate icons into the overall course identity. It’s important to consider if the course has a unique colour palette or stylistic element. For example, the design may contain lots of angular shapes. In this case, including angular shapes in the icons would be a great way to link these up. It’s also nice to consider how the icons sit on the page. If the icons are a signpost for feature boxes, it’s a nice touch to design them in a way to be integrated into the feature box design.
In summary, icons are not just simple visual aids but powerful tools that can efficiently convey information and impact users. A meticulously crafted icon, with its simplicity, adherence to established conventions, and tailored design, can effectively communicate its message. It is imperative to consider these fundamental characteristics when creating icons, as they are essential in fulfilling their intended purpose and ensuring that the desired information is effectively conveyed to the audience.
We hope you found our article helpful. We’d love to hear your opinions on which icons need to be rethought. Join the conversation by leaving a comment below.