Symbols make the world go ’round.
In addition to being more memorable, symbols speed up the transmission of messages. “They’re quicker to interpret,” says designer Jacob Obermiller. “What would be five words could instead be a symbol that you can interpret automatically. Take a stop sign with its red octagon. You don’t even have to read the word stop, you just see the shape and color, and you know.” Speed matters when you’re driving on the highway, but it also matters when you’re browsing a website and need to find what you’re looking for fast.
Symbols also create a universal language that can be understood by people from around the world. Restroom signs, currency symbols, and public transportation signs use symbols for this reason. A traveler in a foreign country would easily be lost without these types of visual guideposts to point them in the right direction.
Experimentation is key.
As you set out to design a symbol, be ready to embrace trial and error as part of the process. “A lot of it is abstracting your shapes and pushing and pulling them to see how you can make a new shape that still reads clearly,” says Newman. Make lots of concepts and rapid iterations, and don’t worry about perfection. Give yourself the freedom to try anything that comes to mind; you might surprise yourself in the process.
To get started, look at different icon designs for inspiration. Sites like Behance are a great way to discover new ideas and designers. “But don’t get too sucked into looking at other people’s work,” advises Newman. “Do what feels right to you. And don’t be obsessed with emulating what is popular right now. You’ll ultimately have a design that’s uniquely yours if you’re not constantly referencing other people’s work.”
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