Branding,Creogram Out & About,Illustration,Web Design 12th April 2016

On icons – why less is more

by Krzysztof Łabno

Icons are everywhere. We see them in the stores we shop, the roads we drive, and on the websites we visit. These, mostly, simple graphic signs are considered the ultimate replacement for texts. Without them, our lives would no doubt be slightly more complicated.

But, there is such a thing as “too much of a good thing.” Icons can suffer from overly complex designs, overuse, and overwhelm. Sometimes, less does a lot more.

Why Icons?

Icons abound in both the physical and the digital world. For the most part, they have become almost invisible to us, though. Our brains have become so accustomed to these visual cues that we can absorb the information they portray subconsciously without any interruption to our flow. That is one of the primary attractions of icon use.

In a world where attention is scarce, and space is at a premium, an icon helps to communicate a message quickly and effectively – a picture, as they say, is worth a thousand words.

Whether online or offline, icons help us better understand and interpret information. They act as support for other content in several ways:

  • Icons help to put content in a nutshell
  • Icons can increase the contents readability
  • Icons help to draw attention to other content

On the road, a stop sign would not be quite as effective without the iconic shape and colour that support the word “Stop”. On a website, something like a shopping cart icon instils a feeling of security within the user that the words alone could not achieve.

Popular Icons

There is a large generation of busy, easily distracted technology driven individuals out there. They, mostly, prefer to consume visually appealing information instead of read a lot of text. That generation is the primary driving force behind the increase in icon usage. Their use of technology and their demand for quick satisfaction makes symbols a very attractive prospect.

If an icon works as it is supposed to, i.e. delivers its message in an easy to understand way, then people will love it. If everyone loves it, it will gain in popularity and become widely recognised. Indeed, there are many widely recognised icons.

Is It All Too Much?

From the simple email symbol to the infamous Facebook like thumbs up, there are hundreds of everyday icons. Clearly, the use of symbols is a good idea. But, the whole icon concept demands a “less is more” approach. If the design criteria are too complicated and overbearing the icon is likely to fail. If they are overused, their purpose becomes mute.

Simplicity is a very important aspect of icon design. Sparsity is also another worthwhile consideration given that users are becoming increasingly inundated. In the end, it is the user that will decide how much is too much.