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September 30, 2014

I Think Icon, I Think Icon, I Think Icon

I Think Icon, I Think Icon, I Think Icon

Iconography is a large part of website design; even the most astringent and clean Web pages require icons of some sort; it is only a matter of what kind of icon is appropriate for the particular brand. A financial institute might not be served well by little cartoon kitties, and a baby clothing retailer wouldn’t use gunmetal gray chevrons. Well… maybe a baby clothier for the emo infant market would.

So, what is the difference between an icon and a logo? Isn’t a logo an icon anyway? It most certainly is not! While logo design needs only the occasional update, websites can and should develop appropriate icons for different service features. Icon design is eternal. Like timeshares and Comcast Cable service calls.

What is an icon?

While a logo is an icon, an icon isn’t necessarily a logo. Logos are the succinct representation of a brand identity, and it carries through all of the brand’s media, whether it is the company website, products or advertisements.

Icons, on the other hand, might incorporate elements of the brand logo, but it isn’t mandatory, although the icon design should cohere with the rest of the brand aesthetic. Essentially, icons represent different aspects of a Web page’s services. You might want a little icon to represent your shipping methods, your different lines of products and their purposes, your customer care strategies and your mission statement. You really could have a dedicated icon for every aspect of your business, if you had the energy.

Little Logos, Big Impact

Icons are a part of your entire brand identity, even if they only appear in isolated circumstances. Even though McDonald’s only has, technically, one logo, there are still numerous icons that are integral to the McDonald’s brand. The Big Mac, the “Happy Meal” box, Ronald McDonald, and the French fry box are all familiar brand icons.

Icons can appear organically from the services or products you provide. For example, the Big Mac’s unique structure eventually became an icon after the public began to identify the several layers of burger with the McDonald’s brand. Eat it, Bob’s Big Boy!

Icons are useful because in website design, it would look ridiculous to use the actual, unmodified logo for every service designation. Of course, you don’t have to have a cute symbol for every occasion. There are other options available.

What kind of icons should I use?

You are perfectly free to use icons abundantly, but consider the flow and structure of your Web pages. Is it necessary to design little symbols for every purpose, or can you use a well-chosen font?

Symbology has its applications, but sometimes text appears cleaner. Also, be careful of gimmicks. You may find that you don’t really need any more icons than your shopping cart symbol or call-to-action button.

Don’t Muddy the Waters

As beneficial as icons are in terms of branding and Web design, it is critically important that your icons don’t diminish or obscure your established brand logo. Your logo is going to be the sun; the icons are just the planets in your logo’s orbit. It is crucial that your consumer base is able to identify your brand by both your icons and your logo, so make sure that the sheer number of logos don’t overwhelm your brand aesthetic.

So, what have we learned today? We learned that logos and icons aren’t the identical twins that many think — the designs and purposes can be vastly different. We learned that icons can do the work of logos over time. We learned that icons of little cartoon kitties will only be used by the bravest financial institutions in the world. We learned that icon design doesn’t have to be pictorial symbols — it can be in text form. Lastly, we learned that in the battle between chubby boys with rockabilly haircuts and clowns, clowns always win. Clowns fight dirty.

author

by Kevin Smith
Managing partner at SmashBrand. We're a group of experienced brand owners, thinkers and world-class designers united by an obsession for creating category disrupting brand experiences.

Purposefully selective, we work with brands that want to stand out and also stand for something.

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