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This is a frame with three icons: an eye, a heart, and a duck paired with a leaf.

A Tribute to Icons

I love many people and things. My family and friends. The smell of new crayons. Cadbury Cream Eggs.

Oh, and icons. I *love* a good icon:

This is a PowerPoint slide. The title is, "What is data visualization?" Then, there is text that reads: "Graphical representation of quantitative or qualitative information." Underneath the text, there are three squares. The first square says "charts," with a grid in the background. The second square says "graphs," with a picture of a line graph in the background. The third square says "maps," with a compass rose in the background.   This is a PowerPoint slide. The text says "6 musts for designing data visualiations." There is a 6-petaled flower shape, and each petal has an icon. Clockwise, those icons are: (1) a magnifying glass over three people, (2) a newspaper, (3) a screwdriver and a wrench, (4) puzzle pieces, (5) a paintbrush and artist's palette, and (6) a horse.   This is a PowerPoint slide. The title is "Evocative Gene-Environment Correlation." There are two rows of face icons. In the top row, there is a large happy face with an arrow pointing to a small silly face. In the bottom row, there is a large worried face with an arrow pointing to a small angry face.

Why do I love icons? Let me count the ways…

1. Icons are clean, streamlined, and efficient.

In all areas of life, my aesthetic is pretty basic. When I’m looking for a pair of gray pants, I just want a well-fitting pair of gray pants (WITH POCKETS). I don’t want gray pants in an alligator print or with racing strips down the side or holes in the knees or ruffles at the hem. (I once begged Primary.com to put out an adult line. Still waiting on that.)

The same is true for my information design aesthetic. I like a limited palette of saturated colors, geometric shapes, and bold, clean lines. Icons appeal to me in a way that photography or complex illustrations typically don’t.

2. Icons transcend language barriers.

Case in point: Look at the signage in international airports. Hey there, icons! Because nothing is worse than desperately needing a bio break after hours stuck on the tarmac and not knowing the German word for restroom.

That being said, icons, like all forms of communication, have a cultural component that isn’t always universal. For example, maybe you’re a kilt-wearing Scotsmen who gets confused by a pants vs. skirt restroom icon. Or maybe you’re my like kids, who have never seen a handheld phone receiver and wouldn’t be able to figure out a traditional telephone icon.

3. Icons are easy to color-coordinate.

Have you ever been looking for the perfect photo or illustration for a project, only to find that there’s nothing that quite coordinates with your color scheme? For example, maybe your company’s signature colors are red and black, but the only images you can find are pastel.

Icons won’t do that to you! There are more than 16,000 possible colors you can use on screen or in print, and you can recolor an icon to be any one (or more) of them.

4. Icons are readily available.

I’ve found that I can meet nearly all of my icon needs using Microsoft Office’s built-in library of icons, which are free to use in Office documents. There are hundreds of choices. There are not one, not two, but THREE varieties of dinosaur. There are planes, trains, and automobiles, and also a hot air balloon, tractor, and helicopter.

If you can’t find what you’re looking for in Office, or if you’re working outside of Office, there are a number of sites with free and paid icons. The Noun Project tends to be my go-to. You can use their icons for free with attribution, you can purchase a subscription, or you can buy individual icons for around $3 a pop. (It’s the source of the vaccine icon in this post.)

5. Icons are (relatively) simple to create.

If you have more time than money, or if you need a truly bespoke icon, custom icons are fairly easy to create…or, at least, way easier than trying to stage your own photo shoot. Adobe Illustrator is my go-to tool for drawing icons, but if you’re not an Adobe user, there are all sorts of tutorials for using the drawing tools in PowerPoint and MS Paint to create icons.

Are you a fellow icon enthusiast? Share your icon love in the comments below!

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