The Language of Icons

Symbols, signs, icons. They create a sense of connection and speak a global language. They help people navigate across country borders and language walls. However, they can also be encrypted and understood by exclusive groups.

Icons across borders

What are the first things you see when you land in the new country? After you leave the aircraft, you probably look for your luggage. Imagine, you land in a country with a foreign language you don’t understand, how do you get to your luggage? That’s right. With the help of icons. They will show you the way and can be found everywhere you are.

Typical icons you can find at airports (

This is only one example of how people’s lives are made easier by using icons and symbols that translate across cultures and language barriers.

Exclusive iconography

Icons and symbols can also be used within very exclusive groups of people for protection or communicate only with people who know the icons. Here is a list of symbols that hobos used in the 1920s and 1930s. Hobos were wandering from house to house looking for a bed for a night and some food to eat before they would carry on. With the help of these symbols, hobos would communicate to fellow hobos what kind of hosts or hostesses lived in the house in question.

Seeing iconography

Like stated, icons are all around us, and they help communication across borders and conceals messages that would otherwise be difficult to comprehend. I had my own experience with seeing iconography during my walk today. I went exploring and like expected, found icons. Most commonly icons are found in traffic signs. So, I took few pictures, sketched them myself and tried to recreate them with Sketch. Traffic signs communicate in three ways: shape, text or illustration, and color. In terms of readability and accessibility, it is necessary that there is more than one way of distinguishing the sign. Warning signs are known from a triangle shape and red color. Blue squares and circles notify regulations and instructions. Here are few examples of iconography in traffic signs:

To sum up: icons can be seen everywhere. They can either connect or divide people. Icons can be different depending on culture, location or language, but should still be learnable. Icons create at best ease of navigation, sense of connectivity and accessibility.

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