What makes an iconic icon?

Simple pictures or shapes have been used to convey meaning throughout human history. In the modern multicultural and multilingual world, such icons are often essential to convey information to people who may not know the local language. And, since the advent of the modern computer and phone, icons have taken on a life of their own in the new technology.

Icons are an invaluable tool in scientific editing and design. We use them to flag particular topics in guidelines, to guide readers through a complex report, to link different areas of website content, to portray complex ideas in infographics and to engage readers.

But every now and then, we run up against a problem. Our clients forget that an icon is supposed to be a symbol.

For example, one client didn’t want to use fish as a representation of a marine subject, because the marine environment encompasses much more than just fish. But an icon is not an illustration – it is not trying to be a realistic depiction of an actual object or situation. Trying to convey the complexities of the marine environment in a 2-centimetre picture may be beyond even Biotext designers!

Another client didn’t want a microscope to be used as a symbol of research, because today’s microscopes don’t look like that. But we often use traditional symbols because they are a useful shorthand that most audiences understand. The symbol for phone, after all, does not resemble most of the phones that are around today. The simple rectangle of a mobile phone would not convey much to any audience, so we use a traditional – but recognisable – symbol.

The power of icons comes not from their detail or strict accuracy but from the associations the audience draws from the picture. To be effective, icons need to be:

  • simple
  • immediately recognisable
  • closely associated with the relevant topic.

When designing new icons, it’s useful to ask ‘What might people first think of when they come to this topic?’ Then, when you have some sample designs, it’s useful to try them out on people who aren’t involved with the project, and ask the question the other way ‘What does this icon convey to you? What sort of subjects do you think of when you see it?’

If your icon is immediately associated with your subject, it can be used effectively to guide, inform and engage your audience.


Icons are used simply and effectively in this infographic Biotext designed for the Australian Federation of AIDS Organisations.