Designing a fresh set of icons can really revamp the interface and usability of your application or product. There are several factors to consider when choosing your icons: size, simplicity, use of colour, avoiding text, etc.

But these icons can sometimes represent a function through metaphor, and in so doing it is important that your product causes no offence or confusion, at the same time as being accessible to a wide market. You must take into account the social and cultural factors which are essential in good icon design so that your product is speaking and making sense to people from all walks of life, and nothing gets lost in translation.


You should really avoid basing icons images on puns. No matter how obvious they may seem to you, icons with pun imagery simply do not translate well. One example of this is using an image of a log to represent a function such as a system log. Firstly, this will not translate as ‘log’ in languages other than English. Even supposing this icon did translate to users, they might not be able to form the association fast enough for the icon to be efficiently useful to them. The user shouldn’t feel they have to solve riddles in order to be able to use the application successfully – it’s just not practical.

Another example of this was when the image of a spider was used in icons in the 1990’s, to represent the ‘world wide web’. It makes sense after a few seconds, but users just didn’t click fast enough.

Body parts

This isn’t going to turn into a scene from a horror movie, don’t worry. If your application is to be aimed at an international market, then parts of the body used in icons should be avoided altogether. You need to avoid imagery that is potentially offensive or crass to other cultures, and certain body parts are a prime examples of this. Some features which are considered ‘clean’ in one culture, such as the nose for instance, may be deemed tasteless or dirty in another.

Hand gestures are also something which can be an offensive sign in disguise. Something totally innocent in your culture could mean two-fingers-up in another person’s body dialect! Hands are often used in icons to indicate ‘pointing’ or choosing a function, a metaphor which could easily backfire. If you find that you are regularly using hands in your designs, you might consider different imagery that could express the function with greater clarity, and less risk of offence.


Again, this sounds like a recipe for a horror movie. But seriously, just as the words ‘kill’ or ‘stab’ are inappropriate for an interface, so any implication of violence or destruction is unsuitable in icon design.

For instance, using a detonation switch to represent ending an application abruptly or ‘shutting down’ is probably inappropriate. Quite apart from any offence it might cause, it could give users the wrong idea about a function, such as that it will damage the application in some way.

Custom Icon Design

0 thoughts on “Top three tips for being tactful in icon design”

  1. Avatar for Adam Parrish viral monopoly says:

    I had never thought about the effect some images may have on other cultures. I will have to be more careful. Great post!

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