Icons, symbols, metaphors and signs are all part of a visual language, which is used in branding and everyday design. This article explores how visual design plays an important role in brand identity and user interfaces whether they are in context with the digital or natural world.

Using a visual language

In either the digital or natural world, we communicate using visual elements such as icons, symbols, metaphors and signs; all constituting what we call a visual language. We tend to take this form of communication for granted, but it is a powerful tool, which designers and global branding experts use to reach their target audiences. Take Coca Cola for instance; everybody recognises the brand’s logo and even the shape of the bottle. However, a visual language has in fact been in practice for thousands of years; the oldest known symbols have been found in cave paintings throughout the Stone Age.

Cave paintings
An example of cave paintings from the stone age

Iconic designs in the modern world

Wherever we go, whatever we do, we are presented with constant icons; we respond to a whole language of universal icons and visual metaphors. The magnifying glass (search), a house (homepage), and rubbish bin (trash) are ingrained into our minds and we take advantage of those visual shortcuts. Even global brands can be instantly identified; the golden arches (McDonalds), the swoosh (Nike), and the apple with a bite mark (Apple) are all iconic brands which can be recognised without words.

Technically a design can represent anything, but will remain arbitrary if there is no agreed meaning. Until the intended meaning is shared by a group of people, the design then becomes iconic. If email was never invented then would the mail symbol be iconic? And if there was no Twitter, what would the blue bird truly stand for? Perhaps one day the burger menu will be recognised as a true universal icon; I beg to differ, but what do you think?

Icons of a trash can, magnifying glass (search) and Apple
From left to right clockwise; a recycle or trash can icon, iconic apple branding, universal search icon

Iconic brands that work

Icons that can be understood without words should succeed as good iconic brands. But for a brand to be truly iconic it needs to reach out to its audience on multiple levels. The product or service needs a good tone of voice, to tell a good story, to empathise with emotion, and more. Here is a selection of iconic logos:

Apple

Apple brand logo

The famous Apple branding

Coca-cola

Coca Cola brand logos

The soft drinks franchise is instantly recognised all over the world; even the shape of the bottle is iconic

Google

Google brand logo

Google is an multinational corporation specialising in Internet-related services, of course.

Nike

Nike brand logos

The iconic Nike ‘Swoosh’ is instantly recognised, whatever it’s context

McDonald’s

McDonald's golden arches logo

The fast food giant’s logo including the famous golden arches

American Airlines

American Airlines brand logo

American Airlines recently redesigned their brand identity which includes a new icon