Ever visit a website or store or see a sign in a public space that you had no idea what the icon meant? There are a lot of reasons for that. One, of course is the ethnocentric aspect – we know what we know based on our prior experiences. So, if the image of the icon is unfamiliar to you then you will most likely not understand what it is trying to convey.
People who develop universal symbols for icons do a lot research and testing of the imagery with a variety of people that make up their target audience. I remember one designer who created wordless instructions for printers and he had to explain how they had to find the right image for a TV icon. When they showed young people the box with the antennas on it, they had no idea what that was. And when they showed a box with the oval in it they thought it was a microwave. They ended up using the TV guide logo – and that turned out to be universal for most of their target audiences.
Let me share with you a tip. Most of us don’t have the time or resources to do extensive testing with our icon images. But what we can do is take a moment to see what universal icons are already being used and use those. In most cases, you can’t go wrong with searching on the icon that you are looking for like “Save” or “Delete” or “Share” or “Undo” and looking at images come up and adopt the one that comes up most. It gets a little trickier when you have a specialized situation like “Open Case” – but you will find something and that is better than making something up that you think might work.
Please do NOT take a standard icon and reinvent it or stylize it to the point that your customers will not understand it. And PLEASE use your icon consistently – have it look the same way EVERY TIME. And do NOT use the same icon for two different purposes. This will not serve you well.