Create infographics

Symbols & Icons in Your Visual Story

What you should take in account when choosing icons for visual narratives

January 8, 2013

[This is a guest post by Mark D. West, co-author of the book ‘Stories that Move Mountains’ (storytelling and visual design for persuasive presentations), along with  Martin Sykes and Nicklas Malik , that we talked about here.]

As one of the co-authors of Stories That Move Mountains, one of my biggest goals is to bring useful design tips to people that may not design every day.

Stories That Move Mountains describes the CAST process, which involves developing strong content, identifying your audience and knowing everything about them, determining the best story to communicate to them, and putting it all together in a successful presentation that can bring forth the desired change.

This article focuses on how to put together some of the pieces of a cohesive final presentation. Let’s focus on one of these pieces—symbols and icons.

Now, we’re not talking about Marilyn Monroe or other cultural icons, we’re talking about graphic representations of ideas, concepts or things. “Things” that could be a role within an organization, it could be part of a process, or it could be a deliverable of that process, but it all comes down to how you want to code the content. These are elements that may be needed to show the problem you are trying to solve, and we’re assuming here you have already determined use of an icon is the best method, as opposed to a photo, text, etc. In most cases, symbols and icons help to represent parts of a more complex process of some kind.

Now that we’ve nailed down the context… This is a four-part study.

1 – So here you are, unsure how to proceed with developing some relevant visuals. Go to the whiteboard and mindmap, based on a key-word surrounding the icon you need to represent. Chances are you have multiple elements you need to represent, so create a mindmap for each one to determine key words, elements or items that relate to them, so you can determine what the icon might have for a “subject.”

 Put aside your mindmaps momentarily now and proceed to step two.

2 – Icons, symbols or signs have actually been studied. The study is called “Semiotics,” and this study determined that there are several icon creation methods—meaning the icon may not always need to be a “thing.” In the book for instance, I reference fire. If you are depicting fire, it could be an actual graphic icon/symbol of fire, it could be the word fire, or it could be something that hints to fire—like smoke or a firefighter’s hat. Often times, the straight-forward graphic of fire will work just fine: then it’s just a matter of determining style, which we’ll get into shortly.

Just remember that when it comes to coding your page, icons can be as simple as a shape that acts as an identifier, or be as complex as an illustration. In most cases though, they are simple enough to work small on a page that contains other elements.
Icons PeopleIcons RainIcons Deliverables3 – LOOK OUT, it might get messy! Now take some of the more significant words and findings from your mindmap and use them to search for icons online (for reference and inspiration only). What do you like? Why? Now let’s stretch a bit. You have determined your approach, and assuming you have an icon set—meaning more than one—you need to make sure they work together. They should have a similar style and feel—and since they are probably meant to be part of a bigger picture, they should be fairly simple, and be effective at smaller sizes.
Step 3- Mindmap

What does “style and feel” mean? Is it “loose” or refined, does it break the boundaries or stay neatly within? Is it daring, loose and reckless or mild-mannered and understated? How does that line feel? In classes, I have always challenged students with that last question. Pay attention to the very nature and details of the shapes and lines, for both consistency and how they feel—or the impression they give you or your audience (test them out on some trusted colleagues). Truth and perception is in the details… because taken as a whole, all these little things make a difference to your audience.

You should use similar treatments to lines and line weights, shapes, and colors. Beyond that, it’s about seeing them together, and making sure that any one of them doesn’t stick out or draw unwanted attention. Mind you, like I’m implying here, you may WANT one of them to draw attention, so just make sure it’s justified. Sometimes simply changing the icon color to warm colors will attract (cool colors recede), and the line weight stays the same.

4 – Lastly, implement them on your page—whether part of a layout or an infographic, make sure they work with the other elements on the page, and fine-tune as needed. Icons rarely will sit alone in your presentation. They are made to visually code the content when text or other imagery is not the right choice. Not only do they provide variety, but we all know reading a presentation is not the best way to affect change—especially if you’re speaking at the same time.

You may even want to get your first drafts onto your visual story sooner, because seeing them together as a whole could change everything. Make all attempts to reference the elements directly on the page is coding or defining is needed—meaning tell us once wit a direct reference and let the audience do the rest. You set it up, and the audience engages in their own way. That’s what we call creating a visual bombshell instead of bullets—PowerPoint pun intended.

Good luck!


[Stay tunned fot more articles from the authors of ‘Stories that Move Mountains’. If you’re interested, you can get your hands on a free chapter here. We also have also a great book deal for you, just go to Wiley’s website and use the promo code VBB66 to get a 25% discount + free P&P.]

Written by Tiago Veloso

Tiago Veloso is the founder and editor of Visualoop and Visualoop Brasil . He is Portuguese, currently based in Bonito, Brazil.