Iconic Icons

By: Christian Watson

Iconic Icons

By: Christian Watson

I n 1961, Herbert Spencer wrote two articles complaining about the state and shortcomings of non-motorway British road signs. It was clear that with the constant rise in traffic on the roads, as well as the rise in speed from the cars being produced, that the signs were outdated. It was also a time of rapid expansion of the motorways, with miles upon miles of new motorways being built every year to cope with the rise in traffic.

S tarting in 1958 and ending in 65, Margaret Calvert and Jock Kinnear re-designed the entire British road system signage, from symbols to font.

For anyone whose been to Gatwick airport, an example of Jock’s work is still hanging up everywhere. The distinctive signage in Gatwick airport of black typeface with a yellow background, as well as the iconic baggage symbols is his work with Margaret as his assistant. And it was on the back of the success of that job, that he was asked with Margaret to review the entire catalogue of road signage in Britain.

Using a carefully thought out structure to devise a correct typeface, colour of background as well as compiling with EU and UN standards of their own road safety rules, they came up with largely what we still have today. The objective of the typeface was for it to be read at speed, but the idea behind the roadside symbols was to convey as much information to the driver as possible, immediately, without words.

They chose a triangular sign for warnings, with a thick red border, white background and black imagery. A striking sign that details a huge amount of information, from roadside workers or “word ahead” to the simple but effective signage of “schoolchildren”.

In the last decade, emojis have become a daily norm for most of the population. These are perfect examples of iconic representation used to depict emotions, actions and objects.

S o, let’s look at the types of iconic representation, how they are used, and what they look like.

Ionic representation is the use of pictorial images to make actions, objects, and concepts easier to see, find, recognize, understand, remember and learn. They are used in signs, displays, control panels and on your keypad. They are in Logos, in road signs and danger warnings.

They serve as easy to remember icons for the obvious, space savers for text. They can be used to draw your attention to important information that you otherwise wouldn’t read, and differentiate themselves from other similar words, phrases and actions.

When we talk about ionic representation, we talk about the 4 different types. These are similar, example, symbolic and arbitrary. So here we go:

1. Similar icons. These are designed to be the simplest and straightforward actions. More often than not they are warning you of an action, object, or consequence. They are direct, simple to understand and not construe, however they are limited because of their simplicity.

2. Example Icons. These images are designed to exemplify the action or object. So they aren’t as direct as similar icons, but they are the ones that we all commonly associate with actions or objects. For example, a shopping cart is used to depict a shop, not a bag or a receipt, we use a cart because it is a great exemplified version of a representation, the other two could be easily misconstrued. They are used to depict more complex actions and objects that couldn’t be represented by many icons. Example Icons are the most direct representation of an action or object. They have to be carefully thought out to find what represents them to the limit before it is too complex.

3. Symbolic Icons. Now, this is where they start to get a little more creative. Symbolic Icons can be slightly more abstract in design. They are the most recognizable icons for everyone to understand because of the icon subject itself. Water, Fragile, Battery, Volume, Refresh. A perfect way to imagine these is a VHS/DVD player….if anyone reading still has one. When designing the play, stop, fast forward, rewind and eject icons they had to start from scratch, but they are now symbolic of an action. The electricity symbol is essentially lighting. Locked and Unlocked is used for cars and phones yet neither has a padlock attached. The icon for home; a small house. They are symbolic. And now classic.

4. Arbitrary Icons. We’re finally here, the fun ones. These are the icons that have no relationship to the action, object or concept. Although you may recognize them now, these ones you had to learn, they aren’t able to be figured out through common sense (airplane = airport). Gender symbols for male and female are a good example. They are considered to be represented by Greek mythology with the male’ symbol represented by mars with a shield and spear, and Venus with a bronze mirror and handle. However, how many of us know this information? These are symbols that you cannot deduce from common sense, only from learning. They are standardized across the world because of the complex subjects. The radioactive icon bears no relation to radiation, science or maths, it is simply a recognizable symbol worldwide as the adoptive pictorial image of radiation.

I conic representations are used to reduce confusion, conserve space on displays and signs as well as making important actions, objects and concepts easily understandable to non-native language speakers. They are wonderfully simplistic, recognizable and strangely, everywhere you look. Some symbols have been around for decades, and some are being created today. Every now and then I see a new one and as relatively unsettling as it is, it is amazing that we can still decipher and understand it.

As always, I look forward to hearing from you. Please feel free to contact us any of us at make@christian-watson.com to voice your thoughts, opinions or to submit an article of your own. Happy reading.

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