Icon designers are dealers in cliché

For writers, a cliché is something to be avoided. It’s a phrase that’s so overused that it’s lost it meaning.

But in visual terms, an image that has been seen a zillion times may well grow in meaning. Why do we think of athletes when we see the Nike swoosh? Because their marketing has created, then reinforced, the association of the symbol with the meaning.

When a designer creates an icon — a tiny symbol that needs to convey meaning at a glance — it makes sense to rely on people’s shared experience of the image-meaning relationship. In other words, if we need a symbol for “Print this,” a representation of a printer will be more self-explanatory than an abstract mark.

It’s a cliché, yes, but exploiting that increases usability.

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