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INSIGHT FOR ICONS
Managing these workhorses of the visual arts is more effective with a structured approach.
by Sheree Clark
At first glance, logos and icons appear to be kissing cousins. In the graphic arts world, both terms are used to describe marks that have meaning or convey a particular message. But while a logo is generally thought of as and emblem representing an organization, and icon is really a pictograph–a symbol representing a single word or idea. Logos stand alone, but icons are like birds of a feather–more likely to travel in flocks. Each member of the icon group performs a particular function, usually identifying a particular thing.
Often more ephemeral than logos, icons are developed to address a communications need in an environment of immediacy. Icons identify, clarify, describe, warn. They are the workhorses of the visual communications world.
Tracy Holdeman of Insight Design Communications (Wichita, Kan.) designed the set of icons for the Hayes Company, a manufacturer of lawn, garden, and home accessories. The project started out as a set of product category icons, but as it developed, the Hayes Company essentially decided to structure its organization to match the icons. Now the company has a product manager for each product line: Large versions of the icons hang from the ceiling above each product manager's work area. Although the icons vary considerably from one to the next, the set is held together by a consistent use of "neo-retro" style and the fact that colors are consistent in value and hue. This icon set pushes the edges of disassociation but still holds together as a group. Insight Design Communications, 316.262.0085.
3. Party pack
These three "celebration" icons designed by Tracy Holdeman for the Excel Corporation are held together almost exclusively by stylized confetti. Developed for use in promoting employee events, the set underscores the notion that just one visual element can be the glue providing commonality to an icon group.
4. Corporate group
Six more Excel icons–also designed by Tracy Holdeman and used on a broader basis in the company–have a corporate feel and a consistent visual style.
When designing a series of icons, you'll want to ask:
- What is the intended use for the icon series? Are the marks expected to relay actual information or are they primarily decorative elements?
- Where and how will the icons be used? Will they be reproduced in color?
- Will the icons appear in more than one medium? At what size will they be reproduced?
- Do the symbols need to communicate in a universal language, i.e., across multicultural lines? Will words ever appear in conjunction with the icon artwork to support or help explain the meaning?
- What is the expected lifespan of the series? Are the marks for a short-lived event, or will they be in use for a long time? Will the series need to grow in the future? Will any symbols be phased out over time?
- Do the icons ned to work in conjunction with an existing visual system? Will they play a supporting role in the clients' brand or can they be developed independently of existing graphics standards?
- Are there already icon in use–either in the public domain or by similar organizations–that should be reviewed and considered to avoid confusion or to capitalize on an existing visual language?
- How big does the series need to be? Will he series be subgrouped or tiered, with some icons being "major" and others less so?
Once you have a grasp of the function of the icons and the setting in which they'll perform their duties, you are in a position to answer the most important question of all: How similar or dissimilar should the marks appear from one to the next? They can look nearly identical, or they can push the envelope of association and still be an effective group. A variety of factors can be called upon or considered to make the icons an appropriate level of "family resemblance." These include:
Shape. A distinct silhouette can do wonders in the creation of a workable icon series. The form can be as simple as a circle or as involved as anything you can dream up. The same profile can be employed throughout the entire series, or the shape can be altered by icon relevance or some other grouping rationale. In instances where icons will be reproduced in a very small size, the silhouette may even become the icon itself.
Color. The use of color can be an ally in design, but it is a good idea to develop your icon series in black and white first to ensure a good, workable design that isn't dependent on color to get the point across. Conversely, it is also a possible for color to play a critical role in an icons series' performance. For example, a distinctive shape used in different colors to mean different things can provide an effective way to communicate with icons.
Style. Because icons are often tiny illustrations, each mark will of course be influenced by the designer developing the series. Certain styles lend themselves easily to icon design. Although there are exceptions, most often "less is best" and a simple approach speaks most clearly and directly. Often this is because the icons will be very small in eventual use.
Content. Some icons are humorous, either due to the manner in which they are executed or because of the subject matter depicted. Other icons have content that appear "harsh" in order to convey danger or peril. Obviously it is important for both style and content to be appropriate to the message and the audience.
Future use. When the first icons in a series are being designed it's not always possible to know how extensive the series will eventually be. It makes sense to design with an eye to the future and to plan for how additions will be treated or how modifications to existing marks might make expansion possible.
All images, designs and illustrations are © Insight Design Communications Graghic Design Wichita, KS Logo Design Wichita, KS. 700 South Marcilene Terr. Wichita, Kansas 67218