Murphy’s Hypotenuse—The Unmistakable Power of Icons (Part One)

By Patrick Murphy | 4 Minute Read

Out of all the artistic expressions I have the privilege to explore in my world of industrial design, there’s nothing that providestheinstant 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 “Iconfolio” 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.

Part Two of this series will appear on Friday, June 1. Stay tuned!

Patrick Murphy