Reflection Point: Symbols and Icons

Upon consciously looking for symbols and icons, I found that despite completing the assigned readings, I didn’t understand the distinction between the two. So, naturally, I googled it. “What is the difference between icons and symbols?” I looked through some Google images, read a few of the brief answers on the results page, and it still wasn’t clear to me — mostly because all of the above involved overlap between the two seemingly distinct concepts. I then began reading a Medium article written by a product designer named Purvi Chheda who said, “symbols are arbitrarily assigned to an object/concept and socially accepted” and “icons, imitate the object they are portraying — they look like the item, but in a graphic form” — I finally understood! With new clarity, I was able to complete my quest for symbols and icons around the house with a purposed lens. To my surprise, I didn’t find many icons. What I came across were the following symbols: power, recycle, USB, male/female, and kosher.

When I think of how these symbols impact my day-to-day life, it’s hard to immediately say to what degree because they are so imbedded in my subconscious. What metric, how do we quantify the value of something if it’s just second nature? I guess maybe if we removed all symbols and icons we’d better understand how much we rely them to grasp the world around us. One of the symbols I came across and one that I find myself frequently looking for, is the recycle symbol. This graphic with its arrows circulating clockwise is globally accepted as conveying that an item is recyclable. I use a power button almost daily I’m sure, and this symbol in particular I feel fits with Purvi Chheda’s definition of being arbritralily assigned as I’ve never really understood the design of said power graphic. It seems to me that many symbols gain their value from being universally accepted, not their visual soundness.

I found many symbols in the kitchen, specifically on appliances and food products. Each symbol indicates that there is a message to convey or details to be aware of; in other words, symbols and icons visually represent relevant information that a person might want to know without taking up too much space on the limited real estate of a bag or menu/control panel. Historically and presently, symbols were developed in order to communicate information — in the past, as a writing system, and presently, in a similar way to represent language but also to conserve space on a particular product. Symbols in a way are their own universal alphabet which is immensely powerful as they have the ability to unite understanding across the human population.