We’re Here To Help: Symbols & Icons

October 20, 2018
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I’m just now starting to get a better understanding of icons and their importance in everyday life. I would see them daily yet pay them no mind. We’re now living in a digital age where the coolest logo/branding gets the most downloads for their app. Everyone loves a genius design and I am no different. However, I am not writing today about marketing and attractive logos.

I’m going to share some of the beauty in communication that I came across while learning to design an icon-set of my own.

Most of us who were fortunate enough to have a history class covering Ancient Egypt or the Incas are aware of the use of communication through symbols known as hieroglyphics. Most of us today have no idea what they mean but there was a time when the majority of the population had a pretty good idea. Just like the majority of us today can recognize the poop emoji. We have been visual beings since the earliest known markings of humankind. It began to sink in. I’m participating in an ancient art

photo credit: Icons8

There was also the hobo code during The Great Depression, where homeless wanderers would create symbols that gave others vital information for the best chance of survival. This was so beautiful and inspiring to me. These “hobos” are not to be confused with “bums”. These were people looking for honest pay, forced to leave where they were from. I’m sure there was also a large percentage of laborers who could not read. It was basically a public service by the working class for the working class.


I was asked to look around and really see the icons I came across in my daily life, then recreate them to get a feel for how they were designed. After I completed the five icons, I can say I have a deeper appreciation for what goes into crafting an effective icon/symbol.


I began with looking at the USB turntable that I listen to while I work. I always thought the electric shock symbol was cool, but I had no idea it had such a balanced design and it’s sharp edges really showed a danger appearing as lightning; with an arrow pointed right at your feet. The pyramid shape is also one of the most popular hieroglyphs. They’re hip, right?


I impatiently look around for another icon, wondering where I would encounter another. As I look at my wrist to catch the time, I realize I am wearing a Fitbit that has been helpful in my recent weight-loss. I give it a tap and there he is. A running man. It looked rather basic, but it was actually one of the more challenging ones for me. He’s totally buff, no stick-man here.
He wasn’t making me want to run. He was making me want to check if this is the same icon as AIM Instant Messenger.


I thought about how AIM is no longer around. Another form of ancient communication. It made me think about my age… and how there will be a whole generation of people who will always look at a floppy disk icon as only a “save” command. I used to cycle-install 5–7 of them just to play a PC game. That’s when the idea hit. I brought out an ancient tool that’s still being used as an icon today. The 45 adapter for vinyl records.


What a cool design. I did not think I could recreate it so easily, but as I broke down the basic shapes — I realized the designer did all the work for me. Everything started to connect. I built this mandala out of a functional part. I was really impressed with the design and I can see how vinyl enthusiasts will try their best to keep it alive. This put me in a great mood and I felt I should exit the work-desk for a moment. This is when I found the fourth icon.


The recycling icon has to be one of the coolest. It gives off the 3-D feeling, all while trying to save Earth from ourselves. That’s admirable. Once again I felt myself designing with a pyramid, just in a more elaborate and creative way. The final icon for my Designlab assignment came as a surprise, but not really. I was playing with my mechanical pencil, wondering where I would find the last icon of inspiration. That’s when I looked at my tools a bit closer.


I had absolutely NO IDEA what it said. I’m not familiar with Japanese at all. Not only was this an attractive design, I sort of already intuitively knew what it was. It was also a recycling icon! But for Japan! (Thanks, Google)


I was so happy that the form of communication this designer was using, automatically clicked with what I already knew and found familiar. I still have no idea what it says, but the placement, the Ouroboros/infinity design all pointed my thinking to “recycle”. It was great, it clicked 100%.

Everything that I have learned today will surely stay with me as I design my next icon, walk into foreign airports, and get lost in faraway lands with a different language of my own. That humbling feeling of not being able to read, yet still find my way — this is all thanks to the great souls of designers everywhere who provide a helping hand.

I hope to be one of them.

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