Every moment of our lives we are bombarded by icons. These simplistic symbols that tell us exactly which direction to go, what button to push, or that unless you pull over now and add water to the radiator you will soon have a sauna under your bonnet. (I simply disconnected my temperature warning light as it kept coming on, and not only did I have a sauna that any Swede would be proud of, but a rather large expensive lake too!).
So why is it that we understand these symbols (even if we choose to ignore their message)? Being a designer I would like to say that the graphic design of these icons is so minimal, so straight to the point that they leave no room for any possible misinterpretation or confusion. The symbol is so beautifully crafted that the reader is told exactly the correct message without the reader having to have any sense what so ever!
Oh how I wish it were so, but unfortunately this isn’t the answer. Take for instance the common male/female icon for toilets. This symbol effortlessly shows us which door to enter, there is no way you could end up relieving yourself in front of the other sex, right? Wrong!
Let’s face it, the design is not what makes us choose, because the design is
of some over simplified figure that has very little anatomical accuracy to a person, and the only difference between the two is that the ‘female’ has a triangle on it. Could this be a toilet for Scotsmen who wear kilts or a Polynesian in a lava-lava, and does a female wearing trousers and not a
skirt take a pee in the toilet with a ‘male’ symbol on the door?
So try as we might, we designers cannot design icons that stand for an absolute universal communication, there will always be interpretation.
Their recognition comes from a myriad of systems such as; repetition; prior knowledge; association; culture; education and association. The reader is as much a part of the communication as the icon itself. We as designers need to take this into account when creating a logo design within a brand. Quite simply, the icon gives clues to the values of the branding, not an exact story.