On a recent trip to Rio de Janeiro, I was rushing through a busy subway station, trying in vain not to be late for the walking tour. As I glanced around looking for signs to lead me to my destination, it hit me. I don’t speak an ounce of Portuguese (outside of “thank you” and “Hi”), yet I was able to navigate my way. Now, yes, some of my time living in New York City helped, but what really struck me was the use of symbols or icons. No matter where you are, the icon for “exit” is relatively the same. The icon for “bathroom” is almost always the same. Imagine a world where these symbols were entirely different city to city!
Symbols and icons are powerful pieces of our daily lives and an important component of design. Human beings use symbols for efficiency. In design, we use symbols to help make a user’s experience easier. For example, using the common “trash can” icon makes it easy to delete something. “Trash can = delete” There’s no need for the user to try and figure out how this works, what this means etc.
Icons are also powerful conveyors of brand. When we see that tell-tale swoosh on a bag or a shoe, we know right away – Nike. What is also great about this, is that it is universal. In countries that don’t use the Latin alphabet, a strictly text-based logo (or logotype) can lose its meaning. Combining language with a logo or symbol ensures that a brand will be recognized.
The issue with icons comes into play when we as designers don’t use them correctly, or over use them. Remember the scenario of every city having different symbols? Imagine apps with no common symbols. Users would have to learn an entire new process each time they used a new app. How exhausting! Symbols and icons are meant to be universal. It is a designer’s job to make sure we use symbols correctly and provide the user with context. Having a design with nothing but custom icons, and no descriptions, could lead to a very confusing and frustrating user experience. Icons and symbols must be used with care, and with thought to their context.
The next time you are lost in a foreign country, and desperately looking for a bathroom, be glad that symbols are such a powerful part of design, and the world!
How to safely cross the street in any language.