June 21st 2017

Icons are the new black

by Martin O'Toole

They are everywhere.

I am sure you have noticed or maybe you are subconsciously ignoring them.

They are in your car, in your house, on your iPhone, laptop, stereo, coffee machine, electronic teeth brush - even on your sexy toys. Basically… everywhere.

They are part of our life and without them, we couldn't do stuff anywhere near as easily as we do.

Think about it. When you buy on an online shop, where are all the items you clicked on wind up? When an arrow pops up on your screen nowadays - you automatically click on it.

When you give it half a thought (as us designer types often do), you suddenly realise that—in our time-poor worlds where we’re so short of an attention span, we now look for icons instead of words—and often if we don’t find them, we lose interest pretty much immediately.


So where they come from? Who invented them? Why are they all the more important nowadays?

Well given the fact you’re already thinking this article is eating up too much of your precious time, how about I tempt you with a little learning..?

People have been using icons to express themselves and communicate with others from the very beginning of the human kind.

Take hieroglyphics. Egyptians used the hieroglyphics, which are nothing else but icons, principally to cave paintings and it successively became their writing system - with representations of gods, religious symbols, and ritual objects. Some of which you can understand even today.

Icon design 2 - Fist of Fury

Icons are a universal language in the world and in modern times have become a universal language that everybody can understand, regardless of nationality, race, age or gender. It’s actually unbelievable how one small image can contain so much information and deliver it immediately—which is partially why icons are leveraged so often in digital design. When used correctly, they can effectively communicate a message in a minimal amount of space—making the difference between conversion and absolutely f*ck-all response.

Icon design 1 - Fist of Fury

The 80s saw the first appearance on the computer. They were black and white and flat, yet their desktop ‘metaphor' has stayed with us until today. Dr David Smith (mathematician) and Normand Cox (artist) created the first icons on a computer. The everyday icons you see on your Mac or PC were all early iterations of icons that we so heavily rely on today and have evolved throughout the years.

In 1995 colour was introduced - making everything look a whole lot better. Later on, shade and detail were added, at which point they became way more understandable.

In the 2000s, everything changed and finally they began to look real! Hyper-polished, shiny, blinky (I made that word up), transparent, multi-layered—bigger and better.

In 2010, less became more! After all of the colours and research, icons seemed to come to their senses. They started a journey back in time to discover their roots and their real meaning. They slowly undressed and revealed their natural shapes and the realistic era was over.

In many cases, icons are able to truly stand up for the text, and this ability makes them so popular in the world of modern design.

If you replace a long stretch of copy with an icon, it saves the place for other elements of interaction on the app screen or web page; therefore making it more functional without being overloaded. And of course, a bi-product of this is making the interaction faster - which is a God-send for designers catering for the modern-day consumer. A picture paints a thousand words, right..?

Moreover, icons efficiently remove limits as they enable people who have the problems of copy perception and recognition, such as those who suffer from dyslexia, to interact with the product.

Icons can successfully combine the functions of navigation and explanation with being the aesthetic element of the visual representation of the product, supporting the general style and having their own character. If only there were an icon for that mouthful…

The thing is that consumers today are less likely to read long copy. They skim through the information to find what they’re looking for. And here is where icons are a must!

Icon design is the future! Why?

Universal language

One silent sign language that speaks louder than any words. The language of icons. A universal language that keeps developing as people create and learn new meanings for each icon. E.g. A few years ago nobody knew what a burger icon represented and now almost everybody gets that they will find a site menu hiding behind it.

Attention spans

According to the National Centre for Biotechnology Information, the average attention span of a human being has dropped from 12 seconds in 2000 to 8 seconds in 2013. Newsflash: this is less than the attention span of a goldfish. Icons are lifesavers in this world of noise and (often) worthless information.


We are always rushing, running somewhere, doing everything on-the-go, and we need it to be done right now. Icons let us do everything faster.

They are small, yet vital, for the efficiency rate of any application or website. They look simple but take loads of time and effort to feel that way. They follow you on any step of interaction with a product, although users rarely – say never. Think how important they are to the success and speed of this interaction. They have the power to do anything with a user: help, support, engage, encourage, clarify, simplify or vice versa confuse; annoy, disorient and so on and so forth. They are iconic in an effective user interface. They are icons. Why write “happy” when you can send someone an icon?

“Simple is hard. Easy is harder. Invisible is hardest.”

Jean-Louis Gassée

Original blog content by Matteo Reggi