What’s In An Icon?

by Daniel V. Licht (@thedvl) What’s in an Icon? Everything.

Original Mac OS icons by Susan Kare

by Daniel V. Licht (@thedvl)

What’s in an Icon?


It must be everything.

It must say everything.

It must show everything.

It’s like a bar, doesn’t matter what its called, when you see the neon martini glass sign you immediately know what to expect inside.

That’s the beauty of visual language, it’s universal. Icons need no comprehension of English, Japanese, Spanish, Urdu. It’s all in a picture. They have been a part of our collective visual language for centuries. And they are now more important then ever. It’s not just about an exit sign, or leading you to the bathroom. We interact with so much in our digitally engaged lives that proper visual communication is mandatory for our experiences.

Now, there are blogs and companies whose sole purpose is to design pure visual language. And many of them do it so well. From infographics to icon development, there are teams thinking around the next thing you will see. But it goes far beyond that. It gets to the hart of every click, flick, pinch, and frag we see. That last one was a little leading, games are one of the best places to look for icons.

This isn’t the first time I have mentioned games as inspiration for UX. Fact is I’m a gamer – I love to play my PS3. But, as a visual person, I have gravitated towards games that speak a good language… a good visual language. And video games can be a hyper-experience, one experience that contains many others. Many games now utilize the “mini game”, a convention that lets you break from your normal game play to achieve a task with different game play. Think of a shooting game that then needs you to open a safe by playing a Tetris style mini-game. My point? All of these points of interactions need visual stimulus and calls to actions. These calls-to-action need their icons.

Failed use of icons ... what can't I bring my lightbulb on the ride?

That leads me to this point; in our busy digital lives we rely on icons more than we even realize. They speed our emails. They get us to our goals faster. Buy that blender quicker. Reserve a table at that new gastro-pub sooner. Communicate with others better. They enhance every part of our world, and they (and their creators) should be recognized.

So the next time you are on Facebook, FourSquare, or Google Reader, just imagine that every icon you see was replaced by text … what would that experience look like?

Hint, it wouldn’t look very good.