Confession: Visual design professionals are not the only ones who love symbols and icons.
To them (and to us), it’s not just filler or decoration. Nor is it a way of illustrating words to emphasize points.
Instead, symbols and their iconographic relatives (also known as infographics) connect meaning and the mind. They break up the pattern of words, singularly, so we notice and absorb quickly – in many cases, much more speedily than reading a page. They also act as translators for those unfamiliar with a particular jargon or culture.
What started us thinking about the power of symbols were the subtle and blatant changes in Bloomberg Businessweek and stalwart Time magazine articles. To depict the changes in the new healthcare law, for instance, Time’s designers segmented the impacts by group – single, newly married, family, senior et al. – and then bulleted those changes in words, with illustrations. BBW grabbed us with the headline “how not to embarrass yourself in Germany,” featuring boxes, with almost universal symbols (taxi meter, water, utensils), and one or two sentences about what to/not to do in different situations, like taking cabs, drinking, and eating. Now every print pub’s doing it, from heavy-on-the-pictures Martha Stewart Living to heavy-on-the-text New York magazine.
What magazines have learned is that Internet-raised readers prefer bits and bytes and symbols as shorthand for communications. Other industries and professions embrace icons: CPG marketers use them consistently. So do architects and planners, among many others. [And don’t forget graffiti artists.]
Icons make it easier for us to flag specific topics – and, visually, identify the level of attention needed. In other words, guiding us about work behaviors and activities. Instead of all-caps directions in the subject line, images are inserted within copy. Inside manuals, we turn to pages we need immediately through colorizing and picturing.
Some of our favorite worktime actions lend themselves to visuals:
- For your information
- Deadline nearing
- Mark your calendar
- Be IT secure
Why not add yours? Or other icons you’ve adopted? Words, we know, will never be replaced. It is time, though, to deliver a greater, more immediate impact when words combine with symbols.