The Unmistakable Power of Icons

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May 29, 2012
Thoughts by
Patrick Murphy

The power of icons

Out of all the artistic expressions I have the privilege to explore in my world of industrial design, there’s nothing that provides the instant gratification of an icon, whether it’s placed on a product or used in marketing applications to sell it.

In other words, I love a good icon. I’ve recently been creating quite a few icons to further flesh out Trig Innovation’s brand identity for some of our emerging service frameworks, as well as some work for some really innovative clients. In a short time, I’ve become the icon guy around here, and I love that. Here’s a taste of what I call my “Iconopoly” at Trig (barring work still protected under current non-disclosure agreements, of course):


Icons offer the designer their own unique challenge—icon work essentially takes a complex concept and represents it with a small, simple graphic, a graphic that communicates a ton of information in a very concise way. It’s also a great exercise in “stencil techniques,” that is, posterizing an image into just black and white. A lot of icons out there involve multiple colors, shading and even complex gradients—especially with the recent prevalence of mobile device apps. But I generally guide my work with the the basic graphic design rule of “if it doesn’t look good in black and white then it’s too complicated.”

It’s difficult to create certain forms or scenes using just pure highlighting and pure shading. Working through sculpting some of the more difficult icons I’ve created has undoubtedly made me a better designer though, especially in the realm of fast-action concept sketching. I usually colorize icons later in the process, sometimes with multiple colors, but generating them in black and white imbues them with extreme flexibility and an inherent striking look that can only come from a “stencil” image. Banksy knows what I’m talking about. I’d like to imagine that every icon I make could be tattooed on someone and still look good in 30 years. Karim Rashid clearly has the same mentality about icons, seeing as he has literally done this:

karim tattoos 2.jpg

Icon creation is a skill set that I’m glad to have developed, because icons are now, more important than ever, so prevalent in the product and service marketplace. They are important for a couple of very practical reasons, as well as one that’s not so practical.

The first reason is the perceived increase in value that icons can bring to a product or service. While they may not necessarily bring value in the monetary sense, more value in terms of attributes, features, technological advancements, and benefits. Surely if people took their time to make icons for specific features or advantages of their products, they must be something new or innovative, or just plain better, right? Iconizing these elements, like product attributes, features, benefits, and technology advancements, elevates them from a boring regurgitation into something special that deserves buyer investigation.

canon_icons 2.jpg

A package displaying eight icons of a product’s attributes, versus a competitor’s with only three, may automatically register the first product to a buyer as a better choice, regardless of the validity of the comparison. Granted, there is an upper limit to icon quantity, a point of diminishing returns where a manufacturer plasters a package or product page with so many icons that the value of each is compromised in a sea of multitude (of course, this breaking point varies by product type and industry context).While upwards of 10 icons would normally be too much for packaging, on this website for Canon digital cameras it works quite well. Digital cameras compete within a highly-saturated market for technical dominance. The difference of a single feature or product spec can leapfrog a brand offering ahead of a big pack. So, in this case, the more icons the merrier. The vast iconography actually simplifies what would be page upon page of text into a visual summary of what features and technology consumers are obtaining within the product.

Canon also consistently marks this format and layout of its iconography across its entire product range, so that customers can ascertain differences between models quickly and proceed to making a purchase. Many of these attributes, may, in fact, be standard across the variety of digital camera brands, but when Canon displays them in such a compelling way, it appears that their cameras are even more feature-packed.

Now, we’ll take a look at a couple of different impactful ways that icons drive the world of products and services.

The second reason for increased icon prevalence is that they contribute heavily to the customer experience. They’re optimized ergonomics for our frazzled consumer brains. Today’s product and service markets are complex and saturated  with vast options and an incessant flow of information, and trying to make decisions based on that multitude of information available can be an arduous process. Any time this information can be simplified or summarized, as with icons,it’s an opportunity for a better experience for the customer.

There are quite a few examples of good and bad information delivery with or without icons, but I’ll focus on one to get my point across. Time Warner Cable offers TV, internet, and phone services. The services they offer have gradually shifted, in consumer minds over time, from luxuries (the 80s) to commodities (now), and they are now taken for granted so much that actually shopping for them is seen more as a hassle by many people than an enjoyable experience. Add to that consumer perceptions of TWC being a monopolized utility concern, and you have a couple of ingredients for a platform of diabolical consumer experience.

However, Time Warner has mitigated some of this perceived awfulness through the use of icons:


TWC’s main product page offers this banner of four simple icons, the first three representing their different services, and the fourth a clear combination of the first three describing the ability to “bundle” them. Unlike some tech service companies that flood their websites with so much information that it’s difficult to grasp exactly what it is they’re selling, they’ve stripped down and iconified their entire breadth of offerings into a simple set of graphics. These icons don’t remove the chore-like element of subscribing to these services, but the intuitive and clutter-free interface at least infers some element of ease in the process at the very beginning of the purchasing experience.

Now for the not-so-practical truth about icons—they simply have a cool factor you can’t get in any other design vehicle. A good icon has swagger, and it’s a bold statement of confidence and character. It’s a brand planting its flag with pride on its merchandise.  

Icons draw a buyer in, much in the same way tattoos draw your eyes on people on the street day to day. Due to its simplified nature you may not even understand it the second you lay eyes on it - but when you get it, it burns into your retina and delivers its message. Some of the best logos feature icons – especially newer, emerging companies who cannot be recognized by simply their name or centuries-old trademark


Icons are the little guys in the design world that pack a great punch in  so many ways, telling brand stories, making bold statements to define customer experience, and alerting buyers to important features, benefits, technology, and applications that drive the purchasing process in a powerful fashion.

Patrick Murphy
Senior Industrial Designer

Today, despite having numerous success stories in his portfolio, Patrick believes his education is far from over as he searches for new ways to bridge the gap between problem and solution, solution and product, product and user.


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