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The Secret Language of Icons

By Nicole long

As I sit here at my computer writing this article, I am exposed to dozens of small graphic images called icons.  There is the set of icons at the top of this word processing software that are comprised of a tiny computer disc, a curly arrow, a folder and more.  At the bottom of my screen are a miniature green human shaped figure and a small blue ‘e’.  If I were to open up the blue ‘e’, I would be exposed to many more of these icons.

How do I interpret these graphics and understand their purpose?  How have they come to be such an integral part of my language lexicon?

One important aspect to remember is that an icon is by definition, a graphic image that has a perceivable resemblance to what it represents (Chandler, 2007).  That helps me because I can associate the image with the function.  Computer discs are where information is saved therefore that tiny representational icon at the top of the page must refer to saving my information.

Another valuable piece of information is that icons are created with cultural and historical references in mind (Chandler, 2007).  That means that, although I haven’t used a computer disc in years, I can remember the association and apply it to this situation. 

Most computer users feel fairly comfortable with simple graphics such as arrows, red X’s and garbage cans but as the internet becomes more interactive and Web 2.0 has a larger impact, we need to examine these icons and ask questions about their viability across cultures and generations of people. 

Not every culture has the same reference points.  Color, for example, has different meanings across the globe.  The red ‘warning’ icons that we use make sense from a western perspective but to eastern cultures that consider red to be lucky; it makes little sense to use red to indicate danger. 

Generation gaps can also cause

problems.  Digital natives are far more likely to extrapolate the meaning of complex icons than digital immigrants (Prensky, 2001).  Consider Microsoft© Word’s interface.  The toolbar is filled with icons that represent a multitude of editing functions that, for someone who grew up with typewriters, would be completely bewildering. 

With these types of obstacles, what can we do to ensure that literacy is not hampered?  The most common reaction seems to be the inclusion of text under or next to the icon.   In 2007, Microsoft© Word was released with an entirely new interface that has text under all of its’ graphic representations.  Online, it’s easy to find examples of text being used with icons at popular website such as or

So, has the icon had its’ day?  Is there another way to use icons that will make them more universally tolerable?  One suggestion is that we implement international icons (Lang, 2004).  Currently, a technical group called JTC 1 from the International Standards Organization (ISO) in Geneva, is standardizing the use of internationally accepted icons for the information technology industry, purposely for user interfaces.  If web designers and software producers followed a set of standards such at the ISO’s, the consistency would permit literacy to improve over a period of time until the icons had become part of our lexicon.

As the internet becomes available to every corner of the world and more people interact with Web 2.0, the appropriate use of icons rises in importance.  If the online user in Bhutan is to have the same opportunities as the one in New York. they have to ‘speak’ the same secret language of icons.