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Written by:
Giorgio Criscione

Five things you need to know about icons

The term ‘icon’ is often improperly used. When designers refer to icons they are referring to the term classified by the famous philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce as signs, which are a stimulus pattern that has a meaning.

Icons can be used in varying ways, for a wide range of purposes and can offer up contrasting issues and dilemmas along the way. Here we highlight five things you need to take into consideration when dealing with icons in your design.


1. Icons can draw attention


Most users will first scan a website page for visually interesting content. Icons serve the same psychological purpose as paragraph breaks and are a simple, effective way to draw the user’s attention into the content of your website.


2. Universal Icons


The home and magnifying glass icons are probably two of the very rare icons that can be defined as universal. Almost everyone that sees these two icons on a website or app recognises them as the home and search functions.

Most other icons have varying meanings on different websites and this process can generate confusion in the user across various interfaces, especially if the user is expecting one outcome and gets a different one.

For a designer and therefore for the user the problem is even more complicated when it comes to designing an icon for a product or service that has unique functions beyond the standard actions of sharing, favouriting or uploading pictures, for example.

No matter how much sense an icon makes once you know what it’s supposed to represent, it can be a completely different experience for first-time users.


3. Out dated Icons


There are some icons such as floppy disk that belong in another decade altogether. Icons that are completely unknown to the smart phone generation. Yet somehow these icons still exist in and can be seen on current and new designs due to their universal appeal.

As we know, floppy disk is no longer a type of storage that any modern computing device uses as storage anymore. Yet, on some laptops the floppy disk icon still represents the save feature. At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter what image we attach to a particular concept, as long as everyone in the given community is in agreement on what that symbol means.


4. Labels dramatically increase the usability of icons


Why should we have a label next to or below an icon if the purpose of an icon is to translate the meaning of a concept into an image? The answer is that the label helps overcome the ambiguity that almost all icons face, therefore to clarifies its meaning in that particular context.

Studies have shown that users are able to correctly predict what would happen when they tapped an icon with a label 88% of the time. For icons without labels, this number drops to 60%.


5. Keep it simple


In most cases, icons aren’t the place to be creative both graphically and conceptually.

The design needs to be simple and the amount of graphic detail has to be reduced by the minimum necessary to be recognised, rather than creating a highly realistic image in order to speed up recognition.

Similar to the process of designing a logo the 5-second rule is very useful: if it takes more than 5 seconds to think of an appropriate icon for something, it is unlikely that an icon can effectively communicate that meaning.

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