What is the Difference Between Symbols and Icons
Symbols and icons are easily confused with each other. They are after all both a type of visual image! But they are actually two completely different things. Interestingly enough, both have historical backgrounds. We might think of symbols and icons as just the little images on our computer and phone screens but they are so much more than that. Icons and symbols both have long stories behind them and as a designer, it’s really important to know that sort of stuff. Not only will it help with trivial conversations at dinner parties, but it will also make you a better designer.
There is a simple way to define what an icon or a symbol is. It goes like this:
An icon is a simple image that represents a real thing. For example, a shopping cart icon.
A symbol is a simple image whose meaning must be learned. For example, most traffic signage is made of symbols. A “no parking” sing with a P crossed out with red needs to be learned to be understood.
Some symbols have been around for so long though that now they have evolved into icons over time. Viceversa, some icons have become symbols once what they represent no longer looks the same way. More on that later.
Now let’s take a deeper look at the difference between symbols and icons.
To get a good idea of what symbolism is, think of the letters on this page. The letters of the alphabet are all symbols. Every letter represents, or better yet, symbolizes a sound. We have to learn how the letters work, what they sound like, etc. Symbolism can be traced way back to the origins of human history. The most influential symbols in history are the Egyptian Hieroglyphs. They were images that represented images and sounds. Some ancient hieroglyphs are still very recognizable, like the ankh. Ankh is a symbol of life. It was part of the ancient Egyptian alphabet.
Other famous and greatly recognized symbols are the peace sign and the fish of Christianity. Symbols have been important since the beginning of human history. They are amulets, representations of invisible religious ideas and beliefs, they are history passed down through generations. More modern symbols are things like traffic signs, flags, company logos, and other images that are always created to represent something without having to visualize the word or description. Emojis are the ultimate symbols of our era.
Remember: Symbols represent things, ideas, actions, beliefs, processes, sounds, words, and many other things. They are conceptual imagery that has to be learned.
In history, icons have a different story than symbols. An icon, before what we know now as icons, were religious figures depicting important figures. For example, Jesus, Buddha, the Virgin Mary, etc. These, of course, are not the kind of icons we use now. The first icons as we know them now came to be around the 1980s. Some might have been invented before but it wasn’t until the 1980’s that the digital icon really became a thing.
Icons were created to make computer use easier and faster. It was easier to see a folder and click it knowing that it would open a folder. If you want to see the evolution of icons since the 1980s, check out this article from Futuramo.
Remember: icons represent the exact thing they look like. Icons are not conceptual imagery, they are practical and useful.
The blurry line between symbols and icons
There is a certain blurry line that exists between icons and symbols that makes it even easier to confuse the definition of the two. Take for example the “save” icon on computers and phones. The visual of the “save” icon is a floppy disk. If a person is younger than 30 they have never seen or used a floppy disk. Even so, they know that the image means “save.”
This is an icon which was created in the ’80s to represent saving a document on the computer. Back then we used floppy disks so an icon that looked like one made sense. Now that same icon makes no visual sense because we don’t use floppy disks. Historically you could say that the “save” icon has now become a symbol.
A similar but inverted example is the ankh which I mentioned before. The ankh is still and will always the Egyptian symbol for eternal life. Nobody owns the visual imagery of the ankh, therefore designers can recreate it in their own style. There are so many versions that now you can even choose from hundreds of ankh icons to include in any project. The ankh is now a symbol and also an icon of the symbol.
Just remember, icons look exactly like what they represent while symbols represent an idea, place, action etc. When designing, knowing the difference will help. It will make it easier to explain things to clients. Did you know the difference between icons and symbols? Tell us your thoughts in the comments.