Is Universal Iconography possible? No.

Iconography. For some time I’ve been designing icons using the processes I’ve learned in school and on my own. The process for designing icons for mobile apps and other media has always been the same for me, try to create a simple visual that can effectively communicate the concept behind the icon in an effective way. Pretty much, say something in as few words as possible, but in this case, as few symbols as possible. Overtime I’ve become interested in the story behind iconography and who exactly made the rules for how we design them. I’ve come to learn that our designs have become to target only western and developed nations. In addition, even in western and developed nations, there are a surprisingly large number of icons commonly used that are not communicating very well.  Then I started to wonder whether or not universal iconography was even realistic goal. Hold on; make an icon with as few symbols as possible? Aren’t icons and symbols the same thing? Lets take a step back to quickly talk about what makes an icon.

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Okay, so an icon is the combination of symbols, an image referring to something else, that communicates a concept, story, or data set. In other words, an icon is a picture that is meant to tell you something. We use them everywhere too. In airports, street signs, and bathrooms. Though how embarrassing would it be if you couldn’t understand the bathroom man and woman icons and ended up entering the wrong room? Very inappropriate! This is a potential problem for travelers from different cultures where men wear robes. It’s these cultural factors that we must take into consideration when designing icons. Even here in the states there is one common icon that has not been effectively communicating and could have severe consequences because of that misunderstanding. That’s the under inflated tire symbol.  Every car has them. And I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten into a car with a friend and that icon is lit up on the dashboard. People ignore it because they don’t know what it means and everything seems to be working just fine. The problem with this icon design is that people don’t necessarily identify with the symbols used right off the bat despite the large exclamation point.


Therefore it should be our goal as designers to try to create icons that can be understood despite cultural intellectual boundaries. We need to research the target audience and simplify, simplify, simplify so that kindergartners can understand the icons, right? Sure. But will that really work? I don’t think so. Even if we try our hardest, there will never be universal iconography. People will always have their own mental images for certain things, especially in other cultures. Icons that mean one thing in the US could mean something totally different in China. For example, color.  In the western world we see white and black as good and bad and in Japan, they see red and blue as good and bad.

All things considered, we can try our darndest but we will never be able to create %100 totally effective, universal language free iconography. We can certainly try to teach people but there will always be some folks who slip through the cracks.