Icons have come to dominate our interaction with digital technology to such an extent that many of us now associate icons exclusively with computing.

While icons are undeniably important in this regard, this line of thought can reduce designers’ ability to innovate as they increasingly take inspiration from other icon designers. Thus, icon design is at risk of becoming self-referential, rather than something grounded in the real world.

It’s worth stopping for a second and looking to the world around us for lessons on icon design. Our physical world is full of iconography, to the point where we don’t even notice a fire exit sign or a traffic light as a distinct entity.

It’s vital to remember that icons aren’t just about visual design, but about developing systems of communication. The signage and real-world icons that guide us through our day-to-day lives not only influence us aesthetically, but provide important lessons in making an impact using concise, clear design. Let’s take a look at how we can use this to our advantage.

Symbols, icons, and indexes

The theory of signs originated with Charles Sanders Peirce, a 19th-century author. He developed what is now referred to as the ‘triadic’ model of the sign, concentrating not just on tangible, visual signs, but also signs and signals as a whole.

Peirce distinguished between three key ways of categorising signs: symbols, icons, and indexes. Symbols are generally ‘arbitrary’; what they represent must be learned in order to be understood. Think of road signs, the alphabet, or numbers.

An icon, on the other hand, resembles the object it is signifying. A digital icon for a camera app that resembles a camera is not just an icon – it is an iconic sign. The camera picture signifies the camera function. Unlike symbols, then, the relationship between an icon and object does not have to be learned: it is usually self-evident and physically resembles what it represents.

Finally, indexes are defined by signifiers which do not resemble their signified objects. Rather, they ‘correlate with’, imply, or point to something else. For example, an alert sound on your phone might indicate that you have a text, message, or other notification.

Building associations

Facebook messenger icon
Facebook Messenger icon
Facebook App icon
Facebook App icon

As icon designers, we can and should use this typology to our advantage. Obviously, icon-signs seem like the most obvious choice for us, but it’s important to remember that most of the highly successful app icons aren’t direct analogies for the functions they represent.

Many great icons are indices or symbols. The Facebook logo icon is more symbolic than it is iconic, with users knowing what the icon leads to by way of Facebook’s international prominence in cyberspace. Similarly, its Messenger icon is more of an index sign than an icon sign: the lightning bolt in the middle implies speed and connectivity, while the speech bubble signifies communication.

What Peirce emphasises as the most important aspect of signs as languages for communication is interpretation. The best signs—and best icons—need to guide users or observers towards a certain interpretation, and it’s this interpretative relationship that makes or breaks icons. In the next post in this series, we’ll be looking at just how you can achieve that.

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