From business-to-consumer and business-to-business websites, to shopping portals and social networking sites, icons are everywhere, so it’s never been more important and relevant to have great icon design to assist users in their journey. So what works best in icon design? In the age of the information highway, icons that really work are those that signpost successfully. They must allow people to distinguish between things more quickly than they would be able to from reading a paragraph of text, and convey a message much more quickly than a written description would on a website. When you see an icon, you need to be sure of what it means, so simplicity is key. A simple and concise icon will ease recognition, and help to convey numerous messages within a small space.

Icons are also great for helping to organise things on your computer. For instance, if a photographer has lots of different cameras, you could use a camera-specific icon to assist in file and folder organisation, and for the labelling of memory cards. A designer or web developer might use icons to organise numerous folders for specific design jobs, or for computer customisation.

Many internet users with disabilities find websites difficult or even impossible to use, so website accessibility is becoming more and more important. There are many guidelines that web designers adhere to in order to assist users, including: using meaningful ALT text for all images to provide descriptive text; using descriptive hyperlink text; avoiding the use of frames, which are difficult for special browsers to interpret; providing navigational short cuts for users of text-only browsers and page readers; using an easy-to-see web colour scheme, and easy to read font type, size and colour. Icons play an integral part in improving website accessibility, so clean and uncluttered icon designs allow people with disabilities to easily navigate sites.

The most successful icons are those that you hardly notice, or have become so accustomed to using that you click on them without even thinking about it. An excellent example of this would be the programme icons you click on every day. The iLife suite of icons, for example, is intuitive and clear – you know exactly what type of program you’ll be accessing, so the icons’ designs reinforce the value of these applications. If the icon is cool, you have a positive reaction to opening the program, which can affect how you think about the program too. The icons on social networking sites such as Facebook or Bebo are bright, colourful and appeal to the target audience of mostly young people – in fact, the icon design is key to these platforms’ brand identities.

Businesses would do well to adhere to the same design principles when it comes to corporate communications. If you want your brand to stand out, make sure your icon design reflects your company’s brand strategy and corporate identity. For any type of business, use of well designed and easily recognisable icons on websites improves functionality and makes the services they offer more accessible and obvious to users, as well as increasing customer engagement.

Finally, don’t forget that great icon design also equals great marketing. Think about successful brands that have a logo, shape, or image that in some way encompasses the product itself, such as the Coca Cola bottle or the 20th Century Fox logo. Good icons do the same thing: they use an image to trigger a response. If the icon looks truly great, you have a positive reaction to using the product, which can affect how you think about the product too.

Adam Parrish

Owner and creative director at Creative Freedom Ltd. Unbelievably cool icon design expert, husband, and father of two awesome girls. A proper decent chappy and thoroughly fab to work with. Ok, so I wrote my own bio…

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