A sign can be defined as a lettered or patterned board that conveys meaning, command, or directions. Another kind of sign is more intangible or spiritual, like, “a sign of success.” For a graphic design discussion, let’s stick to the first definition. Generally speaking, there are three types of signs: symbol, index and icon. Depending on the project requirements, we may be asked to design one or more of these sign types. Let’s look at the differences and some examples of each.
A symbol does not have direct connection to what it represents. The meaning usually needs to be learned through association.
This is a symbol created by Disney. She is a symbol because this drawing can be any female character. One will need to know the animated movie to be able to know that this is Princess Jasmine and associate it with Disney.
The gecko has nothing to do with insurance, but everyone knows when they see this cute little gecko that he is representing Geico insurance. He is a symbol for Geico.
This image of an anchor is a symbol of hope in most cultures. Hope is the main theme behind the image. Without culutural knowledge, someone might just see this image as an anchor.
An index is a sign that directly points to the message or instruction.
This sign is an index because it tells the audience that he or she must be at least 40” tall to take this ride.
This is an index sign, giving direction and information.
These images of bicycles are considered indices because they are instructing or informing the viewer. Even without the text underneath the image, you would have a fair idea of what to do.
An icon is directly related to what it represents, the meaning is immediately evident and it can be a smaller part that represents a whole.
Mickey Mouse is one of the iconic figures for Disney. He is an icon for the company because he is the character that Walt Disney started the company with.
Everyone knows that when they see this icon they must watch out for deer crossing the road.
The RSS image is an icon because it simply represents a concept. It does not tell the view to do something, nor does it have an underlying concept. It is just an image that if the view saw it, they would understand what they where referring to.
Sobottka, Jason, 2010. HUM311 lecture.