Designing Effective Iconography: Some Basics

We see them all the time —
A single “i” dressed in a welcoming serif font says “information here.”An exclamation point, obstinate and uncompromising inside its red triangle, barks “ALERT.”A bold and self-assured arrow promises “the exit is this way.”

Visual symbols, or icons, are used to effortlessly communicate essential information, despite the barriers of language or geographic location. Whether guests enter a building, use a public restroom, cross an intersection, or read a map, the carefully coordinated placement of simple visual icons rapidly communicates a given set of information or instructions that can be instantly understood.

Considering the above, it’s no surprise that designers frequently use icons to globalize and simplify communication. As described by Aurora Harley of Nielsen Norman Group in “Icon Usability,” icons are easily seen, fast to recognize, take up little space, and are often visually pleasing. With infographics dominating today’s visual communication solutions, icons have become essential tools for today’s designers. In the themed entertainment industry alone, icons and infographics are abundant. They can aid in successfully pitching information to clients and clarifying crucial factors in plans, functional theories, guest flows, and guest attendance.

Yet, the successful communication of information through the use of visual elements poses a big challenge for today’s designers. As Hurley further explains, icons can be problematic in that they draw on a user’s previous experience to facilitate understanding. “If that object, action, or idea is not immediately clear to users, the icon is reduced to mere eye candy — confusing, frustrating, eye candy — and to visual noise that hinders people from completing a task.” Gone unchecked and combined with a complex set of data, color options, and style selections, this visual noise has the potential to crescendo to a deafening roar.

So, what’s a designer to do?

The answer lies in keeping simple, effective communication as the primary goal. The following guidelines can help facilitate a successful outcome.

  1. Understand and organize the content. When building an icon or an infographic, a designer needs to determine the essential message he or she wants to convey. Sometimes this is obvious, but more often than not, icons and infographics need to communicate more complex or abstract ideas. It’s helpful to organize content into an easily understandable structure. Break it down into smaller, manageable parts before attempting to design it. This is especially useful when determining whether multiple icons are needed to highlight key points.
  2. Keep it simple. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the details, but once non-essential pieces of information are stripped away, the task becomes easier. Keep shapes, styles, and colors simple. Avoid flourishes and color schemes that could detract from readability. Color and styling are secondary, and should complement the main idea being represented.
  3. Don’t try to reinvent the wheel; re-examine it and update as needed. When communicating basic information (i.e., restroom markers, directional cues, transportation), use icons that have already been created. Everyone sees them all the time, so there is no need to reinvent them. If a new icon is needed for something more specific, do some research. Focus on identifying key features that represent the subject, and use simple shapes and silhouettes when building the form. In doubt as to whether the icon reads well? Have a colleague take a look and give feedback. If there is a delay or struggle with the answer, or if the answer is completely different from what is intended, it’s a sign that some reworking is in order.
  4. Consider the client and/or audience. View the message from the audience’s perspective. Is the message something the audience might not be familiar with? Are there cultural references that should be considered? General symbols work well in these instances. Text labels can provide clarification.

Following these basic guidelines will help provide an effective plan of action for creating successful visual communication standards that consistently resonate across a global audience. 

For more on designing effective iconography check out these guides and references:

The Super Simple Guide to Iconography –

Icon Usability –

The Data Is In: Infographics Are Growing and Thriving –

Media Contact:

Lisa Junkerman