“The modern work of art, as I have said, is a symbol.”
– Herbert Read
English poet and critic
You may not know much about iconography, but chances are, you’re immersed in it on a daily basis. Icons guide us in traffic, they influence our purchasing decisions, they can even guide our eye along a page. The reality is that, though we’re immersed in these visuals all the time, few of us give them much thought. That doesn’t mean they don’t matter, though, or that they don’t influence us in powerful ways. In fact, iconography is an incredibly crucial part of design as a whole. The simple fact that most people don’t overtly notice iconography only adds to its importance, since the impact is subtle yet powerful.
Iconography (technically speaking) is the science of identifying, classifying, and interpreting the usage of symbols, themes, and subject matter in the visual arts. It is the creation, usage, and understanding of the symbols that humans use to convey information to one another.
Icons stand out to the eye in a way that text can’t. They can be used to draw a viewer’s attention from one part of the page to the next, almost like indicators on a roadmap. Because of the way the brain operates, in addition to the lessons we learn throughout our lives, we are naturally drawn to icons and give them increased importance in our minds. As a result, these pictograms are useful for making ideas and instructions stand out on a page or document.
Because certain icons can be associated with ideas, concepts, or commands, consider including those symbols—or creating your own as a part of your branding—to increase a viewer’s understanding of a situation or expectations you would like to communicate to them. For instance, a website user might feel more confident clicking a button with a “download” icon on it, as opposed to the same button without any icon.
One of the best things about icons is that they are compact yet expressive. In other words, they help us take a large idea or concept and collapse it into a universally-understood symbol. Icons are powerfully subtle tools with versatile uses which create impressions in a viewer’s mind. In the same small symbols you see every day remind you of what you can or should do, icons spread throughout documents and web pages can also be very powerful influencers. Use responsibly!