“Trying to capture the essence of an object or idea with only a few lines and at the same time maintaining its elegance is pretty much design in a nutshell. That’s what’s so great about icons, they’re tiny poems.”
Kyle Tezak, The Four Icon Challenge
What is an icon?
Leaving aside the religious connotations of the term, the word ‘icon’ today covers a wide range of image types, from monochrome play and pause buttons to the highly detailed, full-colour icons used to identify an application. They can be as simple as a triangle, or as complex as a photorealistic leaf with veins and droplets of water, but they all live under the broad umbrella of icons.
One distinction we need to draw early on is that between an icon and a logo. Logos are unique identifiers that work best when they stand out among other logos. Icons, on the other hand, generally don’t communicate a corporate identity; rather, they inform, translate and warn. They tell us which route to take, which buttons to press and what danger is ahead; they work best when they’re familiar and recognisable. Finding a toilet in a foreign airport would be so much harder if the sign used the Armitage Shanks logo instead of the familiar man and woman symbols.
Icons are little miracle workers. They circumvent language obstacles, give concise warnings and directions, convey our moods and show which buttons to press. Anyone needing to find a toilet in an unfamiliar country has been thankful for the familiar sign that not only shows where it is, but which one to use. The rise of desktop computers, and better and better mobile devices has extended icon use even further, with an abundance of applications requiring icons to differentiate between them and navigate their interfaces.
John Hicks, The Icon Handbook