Icons are everywhere
What is the first thing that comes into your mind when you hear the word, “icon”? Many of us might think of the icon that lives in our favorite mobile app or website, as we live in the digital age. But did you know that little shapes and pictures you see on the traffic signs are also examples of the icon? How about the male and female figures printed on bathroom doors? Icon doesn’t only exist in the digital world, but it exists everywhere in our daily life. It‘s so prevalent that we aren’t even aware that it is there. Where does the icon come from, and what is exactly the icon? And why do we use it so much? What are some examples of icons in our everyday life that we almost take it for granted?
What is the icon and where does it come from?
More than 30,000 years ago, humans began to communicate with each other using cave paintings. The earliest painting dates back to about 40,000 years ago from Spain.
Ancient Egyptians hieroglyphs and Chinese characters bases their meanings on symbols and pictures.
As seen from above examples, we’ve tried to convey meanings via image even before the invention of any written language. The word icon comes from the Greek word Eikon, which was from Orthodox Christian representation of some sacred personage painted on a wood surface. Today the icon means a picture, image, or other representation from the image. Usually, we are able to draw useful meaning from image of objects that we are familiar with every day. It’s an easy and quick way of conveying messages without our brain having to work too much- that is why historically the pictogram has preceded the invention of letters.
In the digital world, the icon dates back to the very first consumer computer called Xerox Star. It has familiar icons on the desktop, such as folder(resembling physical folder), file(resembling paper with right corner folded) or trashcan icons. The computer was a novel concept , so somehow it needed to let users know how it worked in an easy way.
Icons are literally everywhere in our life
I began to search for an example of icons in my daily life. Surprisingly there were so many of them that I wasn’t even aware they were there- it almost felt like they are a part of written language that I didn’t even think that they are icons.
As a UX/UI designer & web developer, the computer is a huge part in my life. I know that icons are abundant in the digital world, such as software or web/mobile applications, but what about the hardware? First I took a look at my keyboard. It didn’t take me too long to find an example of an icon.
These icons are very common indicators of volume controls, not only for the computer, but also for TV or stereo system. Next to the speaker shape, there are curved lines showing sound waves, to indicate whether this is to increase or to decrease the volume.
After couple hours working on the computer, I stepped away to get some drinking water. Then I found another set of icons on the water dispenser. It was first time for me actually noticing that they are icons although I use the water dispenser every day.
A mug with steam coming out was to indicate hot water (also colored in red to convey the feeling of “hot”); A pot icon in white color (monotone conveys the neutral tone) was to indicate room temperature, probably to tell users that it is ready to be boiled if needed to; A cup with snow flake icon in blue color signaled for the cold water. These icons showed the example usage of each temperature. Also the color made it easier to interpret what it really meant.
I just got a new set of headphone delivered, so I took a look at the package for the headphone to find if there was any icons that I can spot. Of course I could spot one that is universal and familiar to all of us- three arrows recycle icon. No need for explanation.
Three arrows form a triangular shaped, closed loop to represent the three step process of recycling: collection of materials to be recycled, manufacturing of new product from the recycled materials, and actual purchase and use of the recycled product.
Whether you have noticed or not before, icons are everywhere, and it is a crucial part of our everyday communication. It is widely used because it helps us to understand a complicated concept, to interpret a message without having to think too much, or to save space when there might be too many words for describing an idea. If you have ever thought that icons are limited to web or digital world, step outside and try to spot the example of icons in daily life, and think about what idea it tries to convey and how. What if they are described in words instead of the icon? What difference would it make? You would be surprised of how much they are infused in our daily routine, and how much they make our life so much easier.