3 Things I Love About Icons (and 3 Things I Don’t)

Posted by Corey Fraley

March 10, 2020 at 10:58 AM

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As modern-day consumers, we come across icons in all aspects of our daily lives. They are the little graphic symbols used to represent an action, feeling or thing, and they seem to be popping up more than ever lately.

We wake up in the morning and click on a cloud-with-snow image that directs us to the day’s bitterly cold weather forecast. We begrudgingly roll out of bed, hop in the shower and grab a bottle of soap, which includes a series of shapes informing us that this particular product is not only extra-moisturizing, but also cruelty-free and 100% natural.

We swing by the drive-thru on our way into work where an attendant hands us a bag with visual cues on the outside to remind us that we could have pre-ordered with our app and how to properly dispose of the waste once we’ve finished eating. All of these examples, and yet the day has just begun.

As a designer, I am confronted with these hard-working “visual nuggets” on an entirely different level. Through the lens of an advertising professional, I tend to look at them more deeply because I am tasked with creating them myself here at Heinzeroth, an agency that specializes in merchandising and packaging. This requires some pretty deep thinking about how and why they work. And sometimes, if they are even helpful or necessary.

Throughout my career, I’ve seen a lot of the good, the bad and the ugly in the world of icons. And honestly, I probably have contributed to some of each. But as a result, I have been able to narrow down a few things I love about icons… and a few things I don’t.

3 Things I Love

1. Artistic Extension of Brand

The best icons are those that are a natural extension of the company’s brand identity. The ideal icon collection picks up on the brand’s logo, color scheme, typographic standards (including fonts and line weights), creative style and tone. Too often, companies use pre-designed, visually inconsistent icons that don’t harmonize with the brand and distract from key messaging. I think it’s always worth the effort to custom develop a collection of icons that matches the look and feel of what you’ve already created for your brand.

2. Visually Impactful

In general, people perceive images much more quickly than words. A designed piece that is bogged down by big blocks of copy may become overwhelming and lose visual impact. While icons won’t replace copy entirely, they can, in some cases, reduce the amount needed to communicate the same thought.

When appropriate, swapping out that excessive copy with icons can be beneficial to both the design and the intended audience. The overall aesthetic will improve by adding variety or separation, and, as a bonus, the viewer will be presented with visual cues of where to best focus their attention.

3. Helpful, Informative and Instructional

Icons can be diverse in what they define and how they function. Consider them as multi-purpose tools used to help, inform and instruct your audience throughout the entire customer experience, across all types of media for both products and services alike.

Good icon design can:

  • Assist in navigating through an app or down the aisles of a store.
  • Describe abstract benefits/services on a website or within a brochure.
  • Illustrate detailed specifications/features across a product line or inside a user manual.

3 Things I Don’t

1. Can Be Too Complex to Work On Their Own

Icons are developed as visual representations of real-world objects (e.g., camera, bird, leaf) or of concepts (e.g., safety, comfort, efficiency). Often times, the source of reference is so complex that it is difficult to pull off in a graphic format. This can be true for objects, but becomes particularly relevant with conceptual ideas.

If you close your eyes, you can likely piece together a “camera” shape in your mind rather quickly. Now, try to do the same to describe “safety”. Not as easy, right? After enough brainstorming, it is likely attainable.

However, this may still result in having to include a worded description next to the icon in order to clearly inform the viewer of its intended meaning. Something can be recognizable, but not necessarily understood.

2. Lack Key Traits to Be Effective and Cohesive

As a stand-alone, an icon should be unique. But when it becomes part of a collection, it should also look like it belongs. To be truly effective, individual icons should be simple, attractive, recognizable and clear. And in a set, they should carry a sense of unity in terms of weight, space, proportion and color.

It is a difficult balance that is often not met. When these basic traits aren’t addressed properly or consistently, the end result tends to be aesthetically unsatisfying and visually inharmonious. And at its worst, confusing to the consumer.

3. Overdone and Overused

Just because you can utilize icons, doesn’t mean you always should. All too often they can be overdone and overused. It’s not necessary to develop every bullet point into an icon and then, in turn, clutter up a layout with as many as possible.

The opportunity to use them should take into consideration the ultimate benefit. If it’s not helpful to the viewer, then does it just come off as simply random fluff? If they are used too excessively, do they become a mere distraction? Sometimes, less truly is more.

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