Iconography: a Visual Language

by Martin White

From travelling on a local bus to a full on adventure at an airport, our lives and journeys are helped along by icons. They form a visual language that help us to make an action or decision in an intuitive way by creating simple visual references…

In 1940 a group of young men including Marcel Ravidat discovered and then entered what have now become known as the Lascaux caves. They discovered Palaeolithic cave paintings that are thought to be 17,300 years old. The images can be split into three very distinct categories: Animals, Abstracts and the human figure. These pictograms give visual reference to the lives of the people at that time. Although at Lascaux there is only one image of a stick figure to be found (within the shaft of the dead man) other later cave paintings such as the ones at Tassil N’Ajjer in Africa tell much more sophisticated pictogram stories with their use of the human form.

Iconography (or the content of an image) dates as far back as those very first cave paintings and finds its way throughout the history of art, within religious depictions, mythology, symbolism, theatre, film and music.

Moving forward to now… 2014 (in a Stanley Kubrick type ‘match cut’ way) The cave walls of places like El Castillio and alike have now given way to the walls and way finding signage of places like the local bus garage, airport, tube station and hospital, we have a whole visual language that is literally bursting out all around us, however it’s not only confined to places where we might need to make real journeys or real decisions, the icon has become an extremely important part of the user journey experience.

Some icons despite their stylistic approach share a standardised system of helping us to do a task or make a decision, take for instance the three examples below…


Each of the above can be found on many web pages and they all intuitively tell us that we can print without actually using any wording.


Other icons, although seemly appear to carry the same action could be misconstrued and could be interpreted differently by the user to what the intended original message was.

In the first example the icons are intuitive, in the second the user may have to do some work or tool tips included in order to give a better understanding.

Just as a stick figure is a standardised way of representing a human as it was in those very first cave drawings all those millions of years ago, so too is it today. Despite the more sophisticated graphic approach that might be taken, one of the most recognised ways of showing a differentiation in places set out specifically for males and females e.g. changing rooms, is to show a stick figure for each gender. Stick figures transcend languages and so are a universal and globally accepted part of our shared visual understanding.

However given the two examples above and that our visual language often revolves around recognisable metaphors, is the internet or more namely web design moving towards a global standardisation of the icons that are used?

This can certainly start to be seen within the use of Favicons, like those used by Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and Google, not only do Favicons offer an immediate, effective and intuitive way of getting into a website or app but also they play an extremely important part in the branding and recognition of that site. The user connects visually with the icon and knows instinctively where they will be taken on their journey and what will be on offer when they get there.

In terms of the graphical and stylistic treatment of Favicons one could argue that they are not totally standardised – Designers often add their own stamp and flourishes to the look of them but like a drawing of a stick figure created in mineral pigments or a passport control icon in an airport, the fundamental message is still the same. It hasn’t really taken all that long for it to seep into our consciousness that if we click on that little blue icon with an ‘f’ placed in it, we will open up a world of social networking.

Large companies like Apple are of course sharing Favicons within their own icon ecosystem. They are also capable of bringing icons to our attention on a global level due to the huge mass marketing that they do and in fact standardisation of metaphors in these corporations is particularly important to them, if the user already has an understanding of the visual language, it makes their products easier to use.


Taking a closer look at Apple’s icon eco-system shows that they are starting to standardise the icons that they use across their platforms, the share icon is exactly the same. Ultimately icons will come and go but some do stick and this will mainly be because the user finds them to be the most intuitive to use and the designer finds them the most intuitive to design with, the more that this happens, the more we will begin to see a standardisation of icons which will in turn result in a shared global visual language.

What are your experiences with iconography? Do you agree that we are heading towards a shared global visual language?

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