Icons are meant to communicate meaning. Most of us know the ubiquitous icon for power on many of our electronic devices (though that symbol’s history seems to have its own storied evolution). More and more, I find myself noticing the presence of icons in my daily life (especially as a current UX student) — and the ease with which my brain recognizes the messages those symbols are sending.
In a quick walkthrough of my home, I found quite a few icons that I recognized as “universal.” As I searched for various icons that I use regularly I couldn’t help but think about how these icons became so recognizable.
On their website, Nielsen Norman Group states that there is an “absence of a standard usage for most icons” (Harley, 2014). Which begs the question — who decides what icons become the most widely used, and how do they evolve?
In many cases, icons are highly accessible to a wide range of users, especially in the case of international audiences (icons don’t need to be translated like text might). They are recognizable, easy to replicate, and easy to use for responsive designs.
But what happens when icons need to evolve or change to meet the needs of the user? The most well-known case of this evolution is the “Save” icon from the ephemeral floppy disk image to the current variations on folders or boxes with arrows. In the case of the floppy save icon, users might continue to recognize it, but it no longer represents something that all of them have actually interacted with (yes, I know this may make many of us feel very old).
I find this evolution fascinating, and I wonder how it might continue to play out as the objects that icons represent become obsolete in their current form. At what point will the camera icon no longer be relevant to taking digital photos? Will there ever be a time when the image of a clockface no longer captures the way in which society tells time in a digital age?
I am also interested in the evolution of icons in regard to accessibility and inclusivity. I recently learned about The Accessible Icon Project — an example of design activism that works to change the way we view a formerly “universal symbol” of access across the globe. I was struck by one of the founders of the project who mentioned that they started collecting icons with “more design integrity” (Hendren, 2015).
This kind of project reshapes our understanding of a popular symbol and illustrates the responsibility of designers to not only think about what icons represent, but who they might represent. In this way, I think designers have an extra charge to carry out inclusive design that represents authentic human diversity. It’s more than just adding text labels to unique icons — but a fuller understanding of how to create entry points into an experience for all users.
In an article about icons, Graphic designer Gasper Vidovic compares an icon to a metaphor. As a creative writer, this connection stuck with me. Though an icon is not necessarily comparing two unlike things — it does serve as a kind of language that is crucially important for the way users interact with an interface. Icons have great communicative power that plays a vital role in the way a user’s experience is shaped — a power that largely remains with the designers that create and use those icons. As the field of design continues to shift and change with the dynamic needs of users, I hope to see a continued evolution of how we think of universal symbols, icons, and images and how we respond to the way they might need to shift and change in the future.