Sanda Communications - Home
Client Resources Contact Sitemap Who We Are What We Do How We Do It News

Design Corner: Icons at work
By Melissa Ransier, account coordinator

Sanda created icons for Tripod Data Systems to represent the different industries the company serves, such as surveying, manufacturing and construction.

You want to print the Web page you're looking at. So you glance up at the row of thumbnail-sized pictures across the top of the screen. It's not hard to figure out that clicking on the one that looks like a printer will get the job done.

That's an icon at work.

Icons are not a product of the computer age. In fact, long before our ancestors discovered how cool alphabetic writing is, they relied on icons to record transactions and events. Historians call the icons they used to represent fish, oxen and other objects "pictograms."

The first icons? Early Mesopotamian pictograms used to represent a fish, an ox and a bird.

Modern Chinese ideograms, which represent abstract concepts as well, are not far removed from early iconic writing.

Evolution of the modern Chinese ideogram for "tall."

You might say that icons are in our blood.

But why use an icon for a command instead of a word or phrase that says exactly what the command does? Compactness. Words are great for short lists of commands. But what if you need to give a user quick access to 49 commands? That's when icons become handy. (I picked the number 49 because that's how many commands Microsoft Word gives me access to on just three palettes.)

The last thing you want to do is torture your customer. Icons create a user-friendly interface that lets your customer perform commands with a single mouse click.

Combining the familiar and unfamiliar
What makes a good icon?

A good icon builds on what the user already knows. It's easy for a reader to associate an icon that looks like a printed page with the concept "document." Combining another familiar element—a plus sign—turns it into "add document" or "new document."

What about unfamiliar objects?

Your products might require that you introduce icons that are at first unfamiliar to the user. Introducing a limited number of these new icons and combining them with familiar icons will make it easier for your user to learn how to navigate through your software with ease. After the user learns to recognize that a new icon represents a scanning terminal, for example, he or she will recognize almost instantly that the same icon combined with an arrow-shaped "refresh" symbol means "update terminal," and adding a red exclamation mark to that means "update terminal now."

Sanda created these icons for PSC, a manufacturer of bar code scanners. They combine a familiar refresh symbol and exclamation point with an icon for the unfamiliar scanning terminal.

Icon families
By marrying familiar and unfamiliar icons you end up creating entire families of icons that represent related commands. Not only does this simplify the user's job of navigating through your software, it simplifies the job of creating the icons, too.

Sanda created this family of icons for PSC. The first represents a package. The second represents the "add a package" command. The third represents a group of packages. What icon would represent adding a group of packages?

Subtle promotion
Icons are primarily used for commands, but they also provide a subtle opportunity to burn your company's corporate identity into a user's mind. Is your company's corporate color teal? Make sure the same color finds its way into the color palette for your software icons. Your company logo, corporate typography and other design elements are also fair game for the icon builder.


(roll over buttons to see them in action)

Sanda incorporated PSC's company colors, orange and blue, into the icons used to navigate its Falcon Management Utility software.

The lesser of two abstractions
The sample icons we have shown so far represent—in most cases—highly abstracted concepts like "adding" and "updating." Sometimes you need an icon to represent an actual object. In cases like this, it's best to tone down the abstraction and make the icon a more literal interpretation of the thing it's supposed to represent.

Sanda created realistic icons for system-building software created by GE Interlogix, a manufacturer of electronic security products. Because the icons represent actual product models, Sanda chose to make them nearly photographic.

Sanda understands the art of icon creation, from creating simple two-dimensional artwork to creating icons for Microsoft Windows XP, which incorporate perspective, smoother edges and drop shadows. We also understand the science of icon creation, and because we have worked with technology companies for years, it’s easy for us to familiarize ourselves with your company and product and in the end add value that would be hard to gain elsewhere.

  More Information:  
  Company fact sheet  
  Press releases  
  Articles, presentations, columns  
  Events & promotions