Iconography is an area of brand identity design that focuses on the design of simplified symbols to represent and communicate meaning. Iconography, or icon design, can help to communicate complex ideas, messages, or stories that may be otherwise difficult to explain to an audience. The main advantage of using simplified imagery is the intrinsic immediacy of the visual — pictorial elements can express information much more efficiently when compared with lines of text.
For example, road signs across the world use iconography for safety reasons. Designers brief with creating these know that it is essential to communicate information quickly — any delay can cause an accident or injury. In the UK, a ‘stop sign’ has its own icon which is immediately recognisable to road users. The meaning is unquestionable and the intent is clear, with no room for misunderstanding or interpretation. This concept can be expanded across the full design spectrum, with content such as brand or product USPs, values and goals all represented visually.
In this article, we will explore some of the ways icon design can be used in the design process to form a shortcut for more complicated concepts.
When creating a set of icons it is important to consider how they will work together. Efforts should be taken to ensure there is no confusion between the various elements — if two icons are essentially saying the same thing, then this contradicts the simplicity a designer sets out to achieve. Iconography should be designed with a clear and cohesive hierarchy in mind.
More recently, iconography, or icon design, has been promoted by brands such as Nike and Apple who use simplified imagery to communicate their core message across multiple channels — for example, Apple uses a diverse suite of icons to help them express product USPs. The same logic is then applied to the various connectors and ports. The Thunderbolt icon, for example, represents a specific type of connection; the icon then becomes an indicator for users to know how and when to use it.
Recent examples of brand icon design include the Halley Stevensons value proposition, the international value guidelines for Mace Group and a product USP document for Heath Diamonds.
When designing a set of brand icons, it is important to carefully decide what messages need to be communicated. For example, if designing a range of value icons, those values should be properly defined. From here, a clear visual explanation can be drawn. We recommend designing and testing icons at very small sizes, approximately 10mm x 10mm in size to ensure they remain legible and understandable when printed. This will also ensure that there is no unnecessary content. The more complicated the design, the more opportunity there is for misinterpretation. This, therefore, renders an icon unusable as clarity is the main goal.
Icon design is also incredibly useful in situations where physical space is limited. It may not always be possible to write complicated descriptions — this is where iconography can help. Since it is possible to express a great deal in a small amount of graphic real estate, iconography also reduces the need for text to be used on web pages, which ultimately make them more accessible and inclusive for those with visual impairments or limited understanding of language.
Brands such as GoPro have also devised a list of icons to help users create content on a very small device. The buttons and interactions have very little writing due to the lack of physical space, so it becomes a visual language through which content creators can interact with the product.
Another major advantage of iconography is that they are, by their very nature, universally understood. This means they do not rely on a viewer to speak a specific language, increasing accessibility and opening up content for users that have otherwise been excluded. Airports are a fantastic example of this — clearly produced iconography is used to help navigate people to the correct place. Since this setting serves time-short people from all over the world, it is important to cut through the language barrier and deliver information quickly. The classic Dutch design system of Schiphol Airport has become the standard that all major international airports follow.
Similar to the above airport example, iconography is used extensively in wayfinding design. For example, when visiting a restaurant in a foreign country, the universal language of a toilet sign is easy to identify. This can be applied for almost any physical setting, guiding visitors to a payment kiosk, changing room or service area. Iconography can also be used to create a sense of direction. This can help guide a flow of traffic to ensure a space is used efficiently with no bottlenecks. They are also subtle enough to feel passive, while language can often feel harsh or deliberate when issuing an order.
Brand values are commonly summarised with icon designs. These help to communicate the values of a company and can be used in all channels, from PowerPoint presentations or websites to posters and other printed material. Iconographic representations are particularly popular because they are easy to read and allow a level of interpretation.
If your business would benefit from a fresh approach to brand identity development, please get in touch and we will be happy to advise on the best route forward. We recommend that a strategic audit is undertaken before starting new strategic work to ensure it uses a solid evidence base.