Icons form visual languages that (like any other language) operate within their own systems of convention and association in order to convey meaning. Whereas spoken language offers the scope for infinite finesse, personal tone, and even ambiguity, the role of iconic language is to invariably provide clarity and brevity – to render the message simple, direct and unambiguous, without personal elaboration or embellishment.
The trade-off for this concise and impersonal approach is that although simplified and unsubtle, an iconic language can transcend international boundaries with relative ease whilst the spoken or written word is much more culturally dependent and requires painstaking training and practice to be utilised effectively. Witness the abundance of Language Packs shipped worldwide with computer operating systems whilst icons remain constant.
The key to icons’ success (or failure) is in their utilisation of common references that span the relevant target cultures. These references can be direct analogues of physical counterparts and recognised as such, or abstractions whose meanings ultimately have to be learned. For instance, a circle with a line descending from its lowest point, subsequently branching into two pairs of shorter, horizontally symmetrical lines, all angled downwards, is commonly interpreted as a human being (this lengthy written description in itself highlights the benefits of icons over words for transferring simply understood concepts). This basic symbol has been in use since prehistoric times, as ancient cave paintings will testify. Furthermore, the icon itself can be expanded upon to convey further information about the status of the object depicted. If for instance the stick man as defined above is modified by the addition of a bar, at right-angles to one of his arms, then he is now carrying… well, something.
This brings up another important factor: context. If the now modified figure was seen on a wall in the Imperial War Museum, it would be reasonable to assume that he represented a (primitive?) warrior brandishing a weapon of some kind. If the same figure was found in a stadium complex, we may assume that he represents a sportsman carrying a bat, or a vaulter’s pole perhaps. All we could really say with any certainty is that in isolation, the figure is carrying an object or implement of some kind since it is an established convention that humans generally do not have disproportionately long arms or extra elbow joints! So context gives us important information about the nature of the subjects depicted and the related message.
Having used an icon in a set context to identify its target, what next? What is it about the target that we wish to convey? Well, this is usually illustrated by additional iconic elements, whether directly analogous or abstract. An iconic arrow head is a powerful example of a real object, abstracted and utilised to add meaning in an iconic context.
The simple arrow head is a convincing representation of direct movement in a specific direction, for obvious reasons. By orientating the arrow head character differently in relation to the main subject icon we obtain extra information or instruction. Returning to the stick figure, his carried ‘object’ and the two contexts outlined above, in the Imperial War Museum, the addition of an arrow would now suggest: “this way to the armed footsoldier exhibit” for instance, and in the sports stadium, perhaps: “participants this way”. 3D can work well with icons too, adding “forward“ and “backward” to differentiate from “up” and “down” by including arrowhead images with forced perspective.
Icons at their most powerful seem to connect with deeply rooted visual cues in an almost primeval language. The motion of destroying something (or someone), symbolically represented by the path of the destroyer’s hand as the recipient is literally crossed out: here’s a person and then “no-person”.
The use of colour is an important factor too, again deeply rooted in our cultural (or even animal) make up. In fact our response to colour is automatic, almost a reflex action, although there are cultural variations of course: red for danger (blood), black for death (white in China), green for foliage, blue for the sea. We’re still using cave paintings after all.