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Icons, Symbols, and Signs:

Visible Languages to Facilitate Communication
By Aaron Marcus
President, Aaron Marcus and Associates, Inc. (AM+A)

Icons and symbols have been part of the user’s expe- Windows, Open Look, Motif, NeXT, and other desk-
rience of computing for decades, and many people top and workstation platforms all adopted variations
tend to take them for granted as part of graphical user of the trash icon, folder icons, document icons, and
Illustrations by

interfaces. But they weren’t always there. The Apple specific application icons. Today, most work or play
Macintosh popularized “icons” as the slightly mis- environments include (some might say are littered
named term for these visual signs, and by the mid- with) 50 to 100 icons. As I write these words, in fact, I
1980s they became part of graphical user interface counted about 75 visual signs currently on my screen.
paradigms and associated with the desktop metaphor. Is this good or bad? As user-interface designers, I
Windowing environments like the Macintosh, think we care about the quality and use of icons and

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symbols as part of our responsibilities as user-inter- • Phonograms: symbols that stand for sounds, for
face developers. I think they will be increasingly example, the letter “s.”
important in the years to come. Let’s take a closer look • Pictogram: an icon (or sometimes symbol) that has
at their current status and probable future. clear pictorial similarities with some object, like the
person or men’s room sign that (for some inter-
How Do Signs, Icons, and Symbols Differ? preters) appears to be a simplified drawing of a
I’ve mentioned icons, symbols, and signs. What’s (specifically, male) human being.
the difference? It depends on • Pragmatics: the uses of signs by
which definitions you adopt. receivers, including their emotion-
For decades, I’ve used a set of al, cognitive, and behavioral char-
terms adapted from semiotics
[6 (Chapter 7), 7, 12, 19] that might
Icons and acteristics, for example, how mem-
orable or appealing the signs are.
be summarized as the following: Symbols • Semantics: the reference of a sign

will be to some object, structure, process,

• Icons: signs that are self-evident,
increasingly or concept; often referred to popu-
“natural,” or “realistic” for a par-
ticular group of interpreters, like a
important larly as its “meaning,” like a dic-
tionary definition, or its denota-
photograph of a person, a “realis- into
the tions and connotations.
tic” painting, or a right-pointing
arrow to indicate something
come. • Semiotics: the science of signs.
One might call designing icons
should move or is to the right. and symbols “applied visual
• Ideograms: symbols that stand semiotics.”
for ideas or concepts, for example, • Signs: perceivable (or conceivable)
the letter “i” standing for “information,” “help desk,” objects that convey “meaning.”
or “information available.” • Symbols: signs that are usually meaningful by con-
• Index: a special semiotics term for signs that are vention and are often abstract, like the letters of this
linked by cause-and-effect in space and time, like a sentence or a national flag.
photograph representing a scene, or a fingerprint on • Syntax: the arrangement of signs in space and time,
the coffee mug at the scene of the crime. especially their visual attributes such as color, size,
• Lexics: the attributes of how one produces signs, for and shape.
example, with color or black-and-white raster-scan
displays. These terms may seem a bit daunting, but they allow

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us to talk about signs, icons, and symbols in a more In general, we calculated that it would take three
straightforward, unambiguous way. to eight hours to design a single sign, depending
upon its semiotic complexity. Often our clients
Signs of the Times thought it should take about half an hour, considering
Looking backwards, let’s recall that the Macintosh the price they were willing to pay for sign design. In
began with a corporate suite of approximately 250 fact, I recall that Digital Equipment Corporation did
icons. In the early 1980s, many software developers an in-house study of how much it cost to develop one
did not understand enough about sign in the late 1980s and found
the sign development process to that reasonable costs, including all
realize that they would eventually
The status those involved in planning, ana-
have a significant visual-assets
of icon and lyzing, designing, evaluating, and
management challenge. During
symbol implementing, was $2,000 per
1982 to 1985, when we first started
design sign. If it really had taken a short
designing icons for computer- in the time to design one sign, $2,000
aided design and manufacturing industry has would have been a very luxurious
applications, it was not unusual improved, hourly rate indeed.
for companies to brag that they and some Gradually the status of icon
had somewhere between 5,000
aspects have and symbol design in the indus-
become more
and 15,000 signs (they sometimes
sophisti- try has improved, and some
were not sure of the exact number
and had no easy way to find out)
cated. aspects, such as multimedia fea-
tures and the extent of use of
in their suite of tools. Keep in signs, have become more sophis-
mind that Basic Chinese has ticated. High-resolution color
approximately 3,000 signs and that set of signs devel- displays capable of animation and sound have
oped over millennia. Software developers were made icons and symbols in some cases multimedia
designing two to five times this number in a few extravaganzas. Many specialists have emerged.
years. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out Blattner [3], Bly [5], and Gaver [8, 9] were among
that many of these signs were poorly designed. To be the early CHI researchers in the 1980s who investi-
more specific, they were illegible, unreadable, with gated and wrote about the use of sound, specifical-
poor usability (efficiency, effectiveness, and satisfac- ly “earcons,” which are auditory signs associated
tion), and poor internal system consistency (visual with visual displays. In some cases, these sound
syntax, semantics, and pragmatics). characteristics have become routine experiences for

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mobile phone user interfaces and corporate brand- are overdone. I have in mind the Apple Macintosh X
ing (think of the elaborate ringing melodies to dis- icons and symbols, which almost seem swollen or
tinguish different callers and the “Intel Inside” bloated in their visual design qualities, a far cry from
four-note signature). the sleekness of Apple products in the past and min-
Today, icons and symbols are pervasive through- imalist styling of the Titanium series of portables. The
out most platforms (client-server, Web sites, and Web- Macintosh X “icon bar” does swell with animation as
based applications for workstations, desktops, mobile the cursor rolls over a particular sign. Together with
devices, appliances, and vehicle systems). For better other visual characteristics of user-interface elements
or for worse, most computer users must master as (window detailing, scrollbars, buttons), the overall
novices an astonishing range of signs. Undoubtedly, effect is one of obesity. Perhaps this is a holdover
analysts have studied how many signs average con- from the excesses of the DotCom era of the late 1990s.
sumers must know, how many they understand well, The lean and mean 2000s may bring us an entirely
and how many they can remember and use well in a different style harking back to some of the styles of
given context. They have also studied how these earlier decades.
measurements change by age, gender, language skills, Still another interesting trend is the emergence of
education, culture, and emotional stress level, among widely used emoticons among Japanese users of
other factors. Many factors are worth studying fur- mobile phones, who are quite happy to select from a
ther, and I call attention to the humble icon or symbol complex palette to their text messages beyond the
as a subject deserving of further study, with a likely Kanji (Japanese) or Roman letterforms that typically
return on investment. are used. This trend takes the smiley face to the next
I have noticed some current trends and issues level. We already see the use of creative text usage,
with current icon and symbol design. The pervasive like “U R Cute 2” to enable youthful paramours to
use of icons and symbols, especially at small sizes, communicate effectively. The widespread use of what
has tended to produce many icons with highly I call “baby faces,” that is, user interfaces with small-
informative parts that are too small to be easily rec- screen displays, makes the space-saving, denotation-
ognized or distinguished. A miniaturized document and connotation-rich use of new kinds of signs like
sign may be part of another, more complex sign, all of these emoticons naturally desirable and effective.
it displayed within approximately 16 x 16 pixels. Written language may “fast forward” to a form of the
Even with significant color depth, the resulting visu- past, the rebus, which is a mixture of alphanumeric
al form is too demanding on our eyes and mind, and other visual signs.
especially for older viewers. The likely value of advanced visual sign systems
Another trend is large, overly complex signs that for professional users in health and medicine, finance

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and banking, travel and transportation, and educa-
tion and training, among other markets, appears to be
self-evident. Many professionals, such as electrical
engineers, landscape architects, medical pathologists,
and stock-market analysts, already use specialized
sign systems. The challenge with widespread, ubiqui-
tous, small-scale, portable, mobile displays to take
advantage of well-designed, new sign systems is
daunting, especially in conjunction with information
visualization forms (tables, forms, charts, maps, and
diagrams), but it is also enormously invigorating for
both the developer and the user.

Universal Sign Systems

As we look to the future, it is worth taking a look at
the past and at other cultures. Many intriguing exper-
iments or actual exotic systems in use may prove
extremely useful, practical, and appealing. In some
ways, these may be forms of, well, if not “killer apps,”
then “killer sign systems.”
Let’s not forget the standards proposed for
worldwide mass transit and mass communication
systems. These have been codified and published
widely (see, for example, [1, 16]). In addition to the
current technical sign standards proposed by the
International Standards Organization [11] and the
various national organizations in the United States,
Japan, Germany, and elsewhere, internationally
designed standard signs are available from many
manufacturers in various media [20].
One particular set of design inventions is that of
universal visible language sign systems, that is, sys-

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tems intended to supplement (or, zealots would say, failed, to get the United Nations to recognize his sys-
replace) traditional systems of writing, which tend to tem. Bliss symbols have been incorporated into inter-
be idiosyncratic amalgams of signs, except for a few active computer-based systems that are able to help
more rational approaches that have occasionally mentally disabled patients—for example, those with
occurred in history. An example is Korean Hangul, aphasia—communicate better.
which was created in the 1700s by fiat of the emperor, Another example is a system called LoCoS,
who grew tired of his people using Chinese symbols designed in the 1960s by Yukio Ota, a Japanese graph-
to represent Korean speech sounds and commanded ic designer. LoCoS stands for Lovers Communication
the development of a system that “even a fool could System [17], a charming reference to one of the hopes
learn in a short period of time.” He succeeded. of both of these inventors: improving human commu-
Throughout history, developers of language nication among those who do not speak the same nat-
systems have been intrigued by universal writing ural spoken language, thereby helping to reduce mis-
systems, called pasigraphy. These systems, based understanding and promoting world peace.
on universal signs, were especially popular after Mr. Ota has demonstrated around the world over
the Renaissance. Books detailing the many the past decades that his system can be learned in one
attempts to design and implement these systems day and has published books and many articles about
exist [2, 10]. More recent examples of proposed the system, although most of the publications are in
universal, visible-language sign-systems include Japanese. Because of my interest in this system, our
the inventions of two innovators, Charles K. Bliss firm has arranged with Mr. Ota to launch a Web site
and Yukio Ota, who sought to develop something devoted to his system. Readers interested in accessing
like a visual Esperanto (a previously proposed and this extranet may contact me for information.
partially implemented, universal spoken lan-
guage). These visual-language systems provide Conclusion

systematic means of depicting nouns, verbs, adjec- I believe that novel and systematic approaches to the
tives, adverbs, numerical, spatial, and temporal use of visual sign systems are needed to help make
components, more or less like natural spoken lan- baby faces successful, especially for the emerging
guages. They may, or may not have systems of pro- wrist-top devices. Fossil, a well-known manufacturer
nunciation. of wristwatches, has ported the Palm operating sys-
In the early 1940s Bliss, born in Austria and later tem to one, and IBM announced some time ago its
an Australian resident [4], invented a system he called porting of Linux to a wrist-top device. To be truly use-
Semantography (now known as Blissymbolics), a ful, these small devices will need to master the use of
“logical writing for an illogical world.” He tried, but small areas of display and to combine that skill with

42 i n t e r a c t i o n s . . . m a y + j u n e 2 0 0 3
the use of sound for input and output and of hard but-
tons on the body of the device.
Another major, new area for sign development is
vehicle user interfaces. A revolution has begun in the
worldwide platform for automobiles, trucks, and
other vehicles as they acquire advanced telematics,
become hubs for communication, are connected to REFERENCES
1. American Institute of Graphic Arts. 12. Marcus, A. Graphic Design for
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System by John Wilkins, available at
13. Marcus, A., N. Smilonich, and L.
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Thompson The Cross-GUI Handbook
ngogh/555/Spell/wilkins.htm (last
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The signs are everywhere for the increasing Australia, 1965. New York, 1996, pp. 257-270.
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sound in computer interfaces.
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In the meantime, through visible language sys- Esperanto), available at
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ab/bibliography.html (last visited
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Pictograms Standard. Design Pacifica
through better visual communication—well, that’s 11. International Organization for
Standardization, Geneva, International, Portland, OR, 1996
not too bad, either, on your résumé. Perhaps you may (book and CD-ROM).

also get a Nobel Peace prize for good visual commu- Permission to make digital or hard copies of all or part of this work for personal or classroom use is granted
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