George Lucas Educational Foundation
Education Trends

Design 101 for Educators: An Icon Is Worth (at Least) a Dozen Words

September 4, 2013
Image credit: iStockphoto

Although modern syllabic languages are far more complex than the hieroglyphic languages of the ancients, a well-placed pictogram (or icon) can still come in handy when you need to communicate a complex concept in a small space. The problem is that finding good icons -- images that don’t look like cheap clip art -- can seem daunting.

An icon is a simplified picture used to represent a concept or object. They can be a single color or multiple colors, but it's important to keep icons as simple as possible. They are often a single flat color, but can become increasingly complex, even photos in some cases.

Indeed, although individual icons can have simple meanings, combining icons allows them to take on more complex meanings and even tell stories, a fact that educators can begin to take advantage of.

Credit: Jason Cranford Teague
Figure 1. Icons can be minimalistic or realistic, but should be reductive to convey a single idea, concept or object; or combined for more complex ideas. Each of these icons alone suggests a particular concept, but when taken together, the message of 'world vacation travel' is clear.

How Icons Work

If used with a little thought and consideration, however, icons can dramatically improve your students' ability to scan, understand and remember what they've read.

Icons should always do one or more of the following:

  1. Quickly and compactly convey concepts: Controls such as "print," "save," "copy" and "paste" are often represented as icons to save the space that lengthier words would take up. Additionally, since each icon is the same size while words can be different lengths, each concept receives the same visual emphasis.
  2. Draw attention and emphasize important ideas: On a page full of text, icons at the beginning of particular sections serve as visual organizers. This can help students quickly scan for the information they seek on the page, without taking the time to read into each section individually.
  3. Provide a visual memory trigger: Icons can also help students remember underlying concepts by associating them with a visual meme. This cannot replace the underlying text, but by visualizing the icon after reading, some students -- especially visual learners -- may be more likely to recall the associated concepts.

One caution about icons is that they lose their impact if overused. Always have a specific and targeted use for the icons you include.

Choosing Icons

There are some obvious problems with icons, which is why we don't just chuck the alphabet and use them instead. Chief among these is interpretation -- an icon should be easily understood by the audience with as little variance as possible. If students have to spend any amount of time deciphering it, or if different viewers get different meanings, then the icon is not doing its job.

When considering what icon to use, remember that an icon must fulfill one or more of these criteria to be successful:

Credit: Jason Cranford Teague
Figure 2. The octagon (red or not, with text or not) is generally recognized as meaning 'stop' in western cultures.

1. Common: The meaning of the icon is generally universally known and accepted, even if that meaning is not intrinsic in its shape. For example, the hexagon is almost universally known for meaning "stop." One caution, though, is making sure your students know what the icon means, since this is often based on experience and culture.

Credits: psdGraphics, Drake's London
Figure 3. Whether as a simple, colorful or photo icon, the shape of an umbrella is easily recognizable.

2. Recognizable: The meaning is obvious without the context of any related text, generally because the icon has an easily identifiable shape that represents a real world object. For example, the icon of an umbrella -- while not particularly common -- is easily recognizable as long as it not made too abstract.

3. Illustrative: The icon helps reinforce the meaning of the text, but may not be immediately obvious without it. This is especially true with instructional text, where the icons might be combined to show a process.

Credit: Ikea
Figure 4. When all three of these criteria work together, then iconography can really take off. The best example of this is IKEA instruction, where the need is to express complex actions without using a specific language.

Using Icons

The use of icons is limited only by your imagination, but here are a few ideas to get you started:

  • Identify Important Concepts: Define a specific icon that is used wherever a particular concept is being discussed, and then use that icon through a particular lesson or even an entire course. For example, in a European history class, wherever Vikings are discussed, you might use an icon of a horned helmet.
  • Section Markers: At the beginning of sections, place an icon that helps give students an idea of what that section is about or the kind of section it is -- facts, instructions, ideas, background, etc.
  • Lesson Watermark: Use the icon large and light as a watermark on a page. At a glance, one assignment can often look very much like another. Giving each its own icon watermark will allow students to quickly tell the difference between assignments.
  • Instructions: Use several icons together to help illustrate instructions. Especially where the text is lengthy or complex, icons can help students break the ideas down into smaller visual chunks.
  • Fun: Often icons can be added to lighten the tone of handouts or lend additional encouragement to students as they work.

Finding Icons

Over the years, different styles of icons have gone in and out of fashion. The iPhone popularized glossy photorealistic icons, but recently, the trend has been back to flatter styles, possibly in response to the abundance of icons bombarding us. The good news is that there are a variety of different styles for you to choose from, depending on your own style, and many of these icons are free. Here are a few sources:

  • Matt Gentile's Application Icon Set has 120 icons to get you started.
  • Shaun Dona's Famous Landmarks Icon Set includes only a few but very high-quality icons of world landmarks.
  • Icons8 has icons that were designed for the new iOS7 from Apple but can work anywhere. What I like about these icons is that they are simple line drawings.
  • The Glyph Icon Font from WebHostingHub is a library of 2000+ icons.

In addition to being downloadable images, icon fonts are installed and used just like any other font on your computer. The best thing about icon fonts is that, like text, you can size the icon however large or small you want without distorting it.

  • For help installing fonts in Windows, visit Microsoft Support.
  • For help installing fonts in Mac OS X, GuidingTech offers a good tutorial.
  • Entypo has a free icon font of 250 icons in one file that can be easily installed on your computer and used in any word processor.
  • IcoMoon is a free icon font tool that allows you to choose from thousands of icons to create your own custom icon font, which you can then download and use in any word processor.
Credit: IcoMoon
Figure 5. IcoMoon is my favorite tool for creating icon fonts that I can use anywhere.

Final Word

One important note about using icons is to try keeping their styles consistent, not just in a single handout or assignment, but in your class in general. As with choosing a type voice, mixing too many different icon styles can start to look visually noisy on the page. When starting out with icons, it's generally best to pick a single consistent source with similar icon styles.

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