From hieroglyphics to emojis – the changing face of icons

Icons, symbols, images, language and text have been used by us for a long time as a means of communicating ideas and conveying messages. 

History of icons

Prehistoric cave paintings depicting stick figures hunting woolly mammoths, the ancient Egyptians using hieroglyphics for literature, symbolism in religion and medieval tapestries detailing battles and crusades. Our ways of communicating have evolved and changed with tools and technology over the years. Whether it’s through chisel and hammer, painting, the printing press or digital methods, we have always found ways to deliver communications in different ways. 

 How and why are they used?

Within my discipline I use these methods of communication to delight, direct and inform the user. On a personal level, I love working with and creating icons. It’s a concise and unfussy output of design which can convey a message or action for the user. Icons have become a language within themselves. We all understand that an arrow pointing left means a step back within a user flow or that an ‘X’ means to cancel. What I find interesting is how these things came to be.

So before I get into the semantics and discipline of icons I think I should make clear what I mean by an ‘Icon’. An icon can be described as a graphic symbol that represents a real or abstract entity or action. Icons are usually simplified versions of the form they represent. To achieve this, unnecessary details are removed or stripped back to capture the essence of the intended object or action. Line weight, colour and style are defined to keep consistency. Much like typography, icons need to look and act as a family or suite of items if used together.

The evolution of icons

Icons need to constantly adapt and evolve to stay relevant with the user. For example, the floppy disk icon used to represent a ‘save’ function. Floppy disk technology is now pretty much redundant so this is now commonly a button with the word ‘save’ on it or even a ‘cloud’ icon as content moves away from being stored on computers. There are however exceptions to this; an hourglass is something we recognise as a symbol for passing time but very few people physically use an hourglass to measure time. We typically use alarm clocks or a stopwatch to measure time in the modern world. Yet, an hourglass can still be used on the web to signify to the user that time is passing or something is loading. Sometimes icons live on in the digital world and sometimes they do not. They are relevant for as long as they are recognisable to the user. This is where semantics comes into play and this is why meaning and symbolism is constantly being challenged. 

You may remember a few years back a lot of toilet signs being changed from a male or female icon – usually a man in trousers or a woman in a dress would represent the sexes. Culturally these roles are changing so these signs appeared antiquated. Lots of ideas were tried, an ‘M’ and ‘F’ to represent male and female respectively. Different types of symbols to represent the sexes such as leaves, footballs and other strange things. This is something that has caused confusion and is still in transition and needs a solution that works for the majority. Toilet doors around the world have different representations of icons dependent on culture, legacy and heritage.

I suppose this is why I enjoy the creation of icons so much. The challenge of creating something to fit boundaries or restrictions or changing symbolism really pushes me as a designer. Setting principles and formulas to design icons is a very rewarding endeavour. These principles can include colour, shape, size and more.

My process behind creating icons

My process of creating icons usually involves sketching on graph paper first, producing vector assets and then refining. Because my job is about communicating to the user they are a simple and ready-made language that I can use. Especially within screen sizes where space needs to be carefully considered. Icons are a concise and condensed visual communication tool but only if you know the rules. You have to create something that everyone or most people can recognise. Here at Ocasta, it is a well-known thing that I have an unhealthy obsession with icons and emojis – they play a big part within my discipline (design) and I have spent many an hour creating and refining them. At present, I have created 348 icons for our Oplift products and many more for various clients and other projects.

What are the challenges for icons in the future

So what are the challenges for icons in the future? To my mind, the visibility and rise of the emoji has been something that could potentially challenge the status quo. When designing user journeys you want the intended journey to be straightforward and clear. Having an emoji in place leaves things open to interpretation and this is not helpful to the user. It can slow the journey down or cause confusion. Now, of course, this interpretation can be a problem within language. How often have we not picked up on a certain tone of a message or email? These things seem small and are easy to fix but can also be a problem if not represented in the right way. It could mean not being able to find an exit with signage, or going down a particular user flow only having to tap the back button 3 or 4 times. In a culture where time is of the essence and instant gratification is commonplace, this becomes a problem. There is a hierarchy to these things and sometimes a mixture of text and icon can remedy this. You have to constantly ask yourself “what if the visual solution I have provided is not clear and can be misinterpreted?” Icons need help from text too!

When done right, I believe that icons act as a shorthand in communicating ideas and messages that can otherwise be lost. Knowing when and where to use them is my opportunity, as a designer, to really make a difference to the user’s experience.