Icons, so called because they’re miniature depictions of what happens after you click them, are literal and potentially lossless signs. Direct pictographs! These are better for representing saints or images or objects, maybe even processes or maps, but not possible for abstract concepts. At right, a good icon for your address book application. But if you wanted to use it as a shortcut for ‘import contents’, it’s not really literal anymore, just suggestive.

I think we’re better off considering icons a different set of symbols; symbols are by definition abstract stand-ins rather than direct representations. The line between the two isn’t perfect; I’d like to share some groovy symbolic libraries that might straddle it.

  • Heiroglyphics – Yeah, there are pictogrammatic elements to it, but they’re actually phonetic sketches made to document a verbal language. In other words, owls and crocodiles are really just letters.
  • Asian characters – Asian languages have really interesting crossed and common inheritances, and the earlier parts, still largely preserved, are translations from pictographic languages. You can still tell this in certain symbols today, like in this Chinese character for middle.
  • Naval Signals – totally encoded, but very widespread. I guess this is what words have to look like when they need to be seen from far away by strangers.
  • Trail signs – about as iconological as can be got with sticks and rocks. The nature of these as a sculptural language made only from materials found on the trail is interesting itself, but there’s something very cool about the actual symbols used, I think.
  • Hobo signs – as the trail signs above but more concerned with the specific occupation of tramping, and with a more urban vocabulary. Specifically, there are a lot of symbols describing the likely reaction of nearby people to different methods of begging, and suggested tactics for succeeding at the same.