I spend a lot of time thinking about icons. I focus a lot on how to make them, and what makes a great one. But what exactly is an icon? It seems obvious on the surface, as intuitive as the most well crafted iconography. Understanding where the idea of icons comes from helps us better understand the work we do and why it’s important. Even as designers I think we can take the idea of iconography for granted.
Origin of the Icon
Computer interface icons began life as a means to visually communicate computer functions in a graphical user interface (or GUI). Before the GUI computers were operated purely with text-based commands. The birth of a visual interface necessitated imagery to represent various functions of the computer, what we know as icons.
Humans are very visual creatures, we recognize shapes and colors faster than we do words so having that visual aid allows us to more easily recognize and remember the functions of our devices. The pioneers of the GUI realized that icons could make the computer feel more approachable, and help the user feel more comfortable, that was essential to bringing the personal computer to the mainstream.
What’s an Icon?
An icon, as mentioned before, is a picture to represent the functions of a computer, wether that’s an entire software package or a singular feature. A good icon visually tells you what you need to know just by looking at it. It can be obvious like a picture of a calendar to signify a calendar, or it can be a little more abstract like a circle with a musical note in the center to signify a music player.
Icons stand for concepts that are already in our daily lives, or concepts we can learn to easily understand and intuit if used consistently. A box with an arrow pointing up out of it doesn’t mean a whole lot on the surface, but to users who are accustomed to Apple products know it means “sharing”. These concepts, like pretty much any imagery, crosses language barriers. An icon designed by an English-speaker is probably going to make sense to someone who speaks Korean.
Clearly, this is by no means a comprehensive look at icons. However, I plan on covering this topic more, and in greater detail as I go on my own exploration of icons and their history. I believe having a greater understanding of that core idea will further my already great appreciation for this line of work and make me a better designer, and I hope it will do the same for you.