Understanding Iconography as a powerful design tool

By Adelle Chang

Look around you right now. How many icons can you see? Take a moment, count them. If you are in your office, look at your key board, your office phone, the exits, the restroom. Iconography is a guiding force of life. If you are reading this on your phone glance up an inch and no doubt you’ll see some arrows and a magnifying glass. These little interactive cues are at the heart of user experience and design. Today we are talking about how to use these intrinsically simple motifs as an effective design tool.

To understand icons as a powerful and interactive design tool let’s start back at the basics - Oprah… because she invented icons. Jokes, she didn’t, but if you stay with me, I’ll come full circle, I promise. Oprah Winfrey, American media mogul, talk show host, actress, producer, philanthropist, motivational speaker, #oprah2020, you get the picture, why is Oprah considered ‘icon’ status of our generation? Oprah is ‘iconic’ because she is symbolic. She symbolises true grit and determination, the real life representative of the ‘American dream.’ The term ‘iconic’ is synonymous, almost interchangeable with the word symbolic. Icons (just like their namesake) get their power through what they symbolise. So let’s break it down.

To be effective, iconography (the use of icons) should be an intuitive guide of ideas and qualities. Icons need to symbolise something. An icon should be an interactive cue used to represent a core idea, product or action, sometimes in place of words, but also to reinforce a key message. To be effective, icons need to be visually interesting and tick three main boxes: relevant, simple and consistent.


There’s ‘hot,’ Australian summer hot, and there’s ‘hot,’ hot curry hot. When you are translating content to iconography, make sure you or your designer are picking up what the client is putting down. Context is immensely important to iconography hitting the mark. If you are trying to encourage a client to bring sunscreen on the annual retreat, make sure they don’t rock up with their favourite chilli sauce instead. Ensure your icons enhance and support your content not cloud the waters. This leads into our next point:


If you need 3 icons to explain the one you just designed, you’re heading down the wrong path. Icons need to be inherently simple. Simplicity contributes to the power of an icon. Not to mention, when Icons are implemented appropriately they are an ingenious way to save real estate.


Consistency is the cherry on top. Consistency contributes to so many aesthetic ‘feels’ in design but most importantly, consistency builds your brand. Your iconography style is a part of your wider brand ‘look and feel’ so ensure, you find a style and stick to it. Is it linear, solid, round edges, sharp corners, mono, coloured. Lock it down and specify your iconography style in your brand guidelines.

In summary icons come in all shapes and sizes, and they are not to be underestimated. They are an amazing tool to enhance key messaging, create interaction and intuitively guide people through information. They create interest build aesthetic unity and help build brand recognition. Consider a way to integrate them into your design life.

(Also, my number was, 59, I counted 59 icons as a I wrote this…in the words of Oprah “YOU get an icon! YOU get an icon! YOU ALL get an icon!…”)



Adelle Chang

Art Director – skim cap, mum, fashionista and surfer

Sofia MerkoureasComment