I have a consulting client who regularly creates graphs and charts for her print book design work. She designs perfect bound books for various government agencies such as the World Bank and NATO, and I give her design advice.
To visually convey complex subjects in her flow charts, my client often must come up with icons, simplified visual representations of nuanced concepts. More power to her. I'd have a hard time doing this.
But as a former art director, I'm good at making suggestions about graphic design. And, in my consulting client's case, my advice for her icons is usually "Simplify."
What Is an Icon?
First of all, what is an icon, and why are people creating them more and more? As noted above, an icon is a simple visual image that reflects a complex concept. The handicap tag hanging from the rear view mirror of a car depicting a person in a wheelchair is an example. With just a few strokes, the creator of this icon has captured the "gesture" of a handicapped person in a wheelchair. The gesture (what the person is doing, as opposed to how the overall image looks) is immediately recognizable. Moreover, the same icon not only identifies the physical challenge of the driver, but it also designates certain parking exemptions for the car.
The key words are "simple," "visual," and "immediate."
Icons communicate in a wordless, pre-rational manner. If you don't "get" what they mean immediately, their value diminishes. You only have an instant to capture the reader's "aha" moment of comprehension.
An Example from My Client's Design Work
For instance, my client needed to create an icon for an idea that "worked" and an icon for an idea that didn't (a pro/con approach to various proposed solutions). The icons were to be used in a number of sidebars in a NATO or World Bank print book, so they had to be immediately identifiable within the text of the book, and they had to be immediately understandable.
For the idea that was "effective," my client first created a simple light bulb outline with lines radiating from it. For an idea that didn't work, she drew a solid black light bulb without radiating lines.
I grasped the meaning of the first light bulb immediately. The radiating lines made all the difference. They looked like heat rising off an illuminated bulb. And, of course, the light bulb image reminded me of cartoons with a switched on bulb above a character's head, signifying a new and effective idea (an "aha moment"). But the black light bulb didn't do the same thing for me. Even when my client explained the image to me, I had to think about it. It took time. It didn't work as an icon (for me). More than an instant is too long. More than an instant, and my client would have lost her reader's attention.
What You Can Do in Your Own Design Work
First of all, in your own design work, you may be asked to create icons similar to my client's light bulb. I think this trend is connected to a shift toward visual communication on the Internet via photos and videos. Many prefer these to verbal descriptions.
In fact, if you look at printed instructions for assembling IKEA furniture, you see lots of images but no words. Presumably this avoids multiple translations into multiple languages, but it does show that people are increasingly used to communicating via pictures rather than words.
To go back to my client's charts and graphs, the icons she has to create allow her to describe processes by designing flow charts that show what happens first, second, etc., and toward what final result. This whole process, which might otherwise have taken a page to describe, is given visual form in a flow chart using icons, arrows, and short captions.
When I looked up icons just now in Design Basics Index (by Jim Krause), my go-to book on all things related to design, I learned a number of tips and tricks for creating icons. This information is relevant to icons for both flow charts and logos. I have also added some of my own thoughts to this compilation:
1. Make the icon immediately understandable. The best way to ensure that your idea works from person to person is to show the icons to many people. Don't stop with the first person who likes your icon design and "gets" its meaning. Someone else may not get it. And their feedback may be equally useful, particularly if they can articulate why it doesn't work for them.
2. If at all possible, show the icons you have developed to people from different cultures. After all, many images have different connotations in different cultures. One connotation may be positive, another negative.
3. Design your icon for simplicity. The Design Basics Index shows a photo of a saw and an icon of a saw side by side. The photo is very detailed. In contrast, the icon focuses on the tip of the saw, its teeth, and the hole at the end of the blade for hanging the saw above the workbench. The same section in Design Basics Index shows a photo of a screw and an icon of a screw. The icon shows the curved top of the screw, the slot for the screwdriver, and the curved threads on the shaft of the screw (three elements of the screw icon, in contrast to all the details of the photo). Krause's icons include only the "essentials" of an image.
4. Later in this same chapter of Design Basics Index, Jim Krause suggests placing an image for an icon within the bounds of a simple shape. In this particular case, he uses an abstract of a hammer placed within a square. He captures the curve of the nail hook (used to pull out nails), and then by adding one white vertical line in front of, and one white vertical line behind, the head of the hammer, he both creates visual interest and highlights the hammer head. The simple form of the square containing the hammer gives the viewer a defined, geometric shape to limit the boundaries of the icon (visually, it reads as a single, simple, square object).
5. View (or ideally print) the icon at different sizes. Make sure it can be immediately identified and understood at a small size as well as a large one. Some of your readers may be older (with compromised eyesight), and anything that slows the reader down makes the icon an impediment rather than an aid in communication. This is especially true for icons used in logos, because a logo will need to work for many years on printed products ranging in size from a business card to (presumably) a wall banner or vehicle wrap.
6. Try different colors for your icon. Too light a color, and the icon (or part of the icon) may be harder to see. That said, the ideal icon can be produced (and be understandable) in one color.
7. One a related note, some colors have different connotations in different countries. An image regarded positively in one color in one culture might be regarded negatively in another. (For instance, some cultures associate black with death; others associate white with death.)
8. A final idea is to make your initial sketches of the icon with a pen and paper (not a drawing program on your computer). This will encourage you to do many simple drawings quickly, focusing on one idea and then altering it slightly, or abandoning it altogether and moving on to a new concept for your icon. If you try to do this on the computer, you can spend too much time on one concept and be hesitant (subconsciously) to discard it just because you spent so much time creating it. In contrast, you can do a rough sketch in a few minutes. Then you can collect a handful of concepts you like. At this point you can take the time to develop each concept in your vector-based computer illustration program.
[Steven Waxman is a printing consultant. He teaches corporations how to save money buying printing, brokers printing services, and teaches prepress techniques. Steven has been in the printing industry for thirty-three years working as a writer, editor, print buyer, photographer, graphic designer, art director, and production manager.]