Creating web icons that break the language barrier

Here's some inspiration for creating effective icons that communicate clearly.

We use icons to convey an idea, an action or an object, in a split second. Icons work well on the web because they are ideal for non-verbal communication; they break the language barrier. This is why music players have rewind, fast-forward, and play icons; why airport customs always include an officer icon; and why three lines are known as a 'hamburger menu'.

Creating icons

When it comes to designing icons for the web, the treatment of line, shapes and space have everything to do with how the icons stand individually and as a group. Lines should be similar in thickness and ends (capped, beveled, and so on). Whenever possible, repeat similar shapes, angles and negative spaces. For example, if an icon set includes a 4px radius on all corners, carry that through to the rest of the icons – whether you're using Illustrator or Sketch, or sorting through The Noun Project.

Icons in code

SVGs and CSS animations make it so easy to include well-made icons (that aren't performance-draining icon font files) to any site. Consider how you could separate paths using SVGs to build dynamic, playful animations, or change colours in CSS on hover. The best part about SVGs is that there's no need to repeatedly export pixel-based image files for responsive sites, so it's possible to really stretch their capability and interactivity.  

Here are three sites with great icons:

01. The St Louis Murmuration Festival

The delightful website for The St. Louis Murmuration Festival benefits from icons that are thin, understated, and show just enough of an object to make it identifiable.

02. Grosse Laterne

Another festival, this time in Montreal, Grosse Laterne uses playful icons all over its site, setting them up into illustrations and reusing common elements over and over. To drive the consistency home even further, the line thickness stays the same.

03. Austin City Limits Festival

The site of Austin City Limits Festival has simple and clear icons that support the bold display text on its info pages, helping break up the content.

This article originally appeared in net magazine issue 285, buy it here.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sam is a designer living in Texas and an instructor at The Iron Yard, an international, immersive coding school.