Liquid State internal communication

Marveling at our daily intake of symbols and icons


This afternoon I attended a lecture at QUT titled ‘marveling at our daily intake of symbols and icons’. Patrick Hoffman, who works for Google Australia ran the lecture. Patrick is a UX designer, which, according to my hurried consultation with Google (yes, I am aware of the irony) means he is a ‘user experience designer’. When he started with the company, Patrick began creating an icon library for Google maps and he spoke today about what he has learned along the way.

According to Patrick, the art of creating icons, aka iconography, is an efficient means of communication because it eliminates the need for words. Whilst it can be visually pleasing, it can also be problematic.

The stimuli that people encounter in their lifetimes determine how they interpret icons. Everyone has encountered different stimuli- they have read different books, listened to different music, and watched different news programs. This means that everyone responds to icons in a unique way and therefore it is extremely difficult to create a globally recognizable icon. Patrick said one of the biggest challenges of globalising or internationalising icons is trying to avoid offending people and as such, cultural awareness is key when it comes to creating icons.

UX designers attempt to create globalised icons by removing the adjectives from the image. They take away extra visual features so that the icon is stripped back to its most simple form, which makes it seem more pure, and shaves nanoseconds off the interpretation time. Icons are designed to be recognized not read, and scanned not studied.

Patrick said the concepts of simplicity and minimalism in icon design are essential, and he used the example of modern mobile phones to demonstrate his point. Today, user interfaces are so complex, interactive, and photorealistic that the icons for apps need to be really simple to avoid blending in with the background. Additionally, when used in sequence, icons should be clearly distinguishable from one another. In terms of maps, icons for different landmarks- such as banks, stadiums and universities- also need to be simple so that they don’t override the map. They also need to be distinctive so that people can easily distinguish them on static and satellite maps.

On the other hand, simplicity can be a catch-22. If an icon is too simple, it can become ambiguous and the interpretation time is drastically increased. When we come across an icon we don’t recognise, a cognitive process occurs where we subconsciously trawl through our memories to see if we have any recollection of ever having encountered the symbol.

Another difficulty involved in designing icons is the fact that icons have a life span. Just like languages, icons are constantly evolving and this is an important concept for designers to remember. Icons that do become attached to a particular concept or idea become learned images and act as a visual font.

This learning process begins from a really young age. Patrick said that designers should always think about age groups when creating icons. Age groups can be considered cultures, and if the culture for a particular icon is as diverse as Google’s, designers need to keep in mind that children interpret things differently to adults.

Patrick said the best way to overcome all of these issue is to test the icons before releasing them. Google regularly runs usability tests on children, because they identify the most elementary components of a concept.

An additional important aspect of Patrick’s discussion was that size is important when it comes to icon design. The placement of pixels can severely impact the final product of an icon. Even the most minute of changes can alter the way the icon will appear and consequently be interpreted. Icons must be recognizable, even when they are really small. To address these concerns, he suggested that designers should create their icons in actual size.

On a final note, Patrick spoke about the difference between icons and logos. He argued that logos are the polar opposite of icons in that they are meant to be full of adjectives and they are meant to involve interpretation and study. Corporate or brand logos are full of meanings that make them memorable to the public.

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