Pictograms and symbols: how branding and visual language has to adapt in a digital age

1 June 2016

Lee Coomber is creative director for Europe and Middle East for creative consultancy Lippincott. Here he tells us how branding and visual language is adapting to the digital, on-demand age through symbols and icons.

Today, brands speak using visual and verbal elements that echo the sound bites of texting and social media. Consumers are learning how to navigate an increasingly complex world through symbols, pictograms and other visual shortcuts, cues and conventions.

As space efficient, time saving and cross cultural symbolism starts to usurp written language, an interesting symbol-based language has emerged. Reminiscent of Chinese or Japanese script, this new dialect is beginning to be assimilated into our everyday lives.

Pictograms in a building were once chosen from a catalogue of symbols: reception, lift, restaurant, toilets. While the enlightened would commission their own signs to match the aesthetic of the building, symbols were merely add-ons or extras. Now, in our on-demand culture, they are the essential means of the communication. If you’re online then symbols, pictograms, type, colour, animation and images are the building itself. They have become the medium through which you experience the offer.

Designing for screens has nurtured particular looks so perhaps it’s no surprise that many company logos also now want to look more like pictograms themselves. Gumtree, Uber, Apple, Airbnb are but a few examples. These companies want the feel of a utility, fit for purpose, to be a tool as much as a company emblem.

For an ever increasing number of services, we no longer experience a company of people – we’re dealing with a tool. The relationship with Uber is an experience on a phone, it’s not with the company or people behind it. The relationship is both hyper transactional and yet totally intermediated through sensory, type, icons, sliding windows and graphics. If I don’t like these and how they work, I go elsewhere.

For these brands, design elements aren’t add on or add after, they sit at the core of the user relationship. And there seems to be a different set of rules by which we judge our experiences with them. While you won’t be impressed if your driver turns up with a car smelling of last night’s kebab, chances are your first thought is to blame the driver, city or culture you live in, not Uber. Why? Because Uber lives as an interface on your pocket or bag – neat, clean and kebab-free.

Take Amazon and Google, both large digital businesses that live almost entirely as interfaces. While these organisations may feel like they have a face and a personality, they are the sum total of graphics, symbols, colour, type, language and layout. They communicate through a new palette of symbols, scrolls, swipes, taps, motion and auditory cues. Which means their design needs to be invested with thought, craft and care.

This seismic shift from design as a marketing prop to centre stage in the experience is profound, yet a challenge to designers who need to brutally simplify and clarify on one hand while emotionalising and individualising on the other. The small irony is, this takes designers back to a time when reproduction was crude, colour was a luxury and space was a premium. As iron smelting technics restricted branding irons so do pixel restrictions, download speeds and huge space constraints affect design today.

Not only are we learning a new visual lexicon of symbols like Bluetooth, USB or hashtags. Designers are looking to create new icons with individual aesthetic accents to suit the different brands they represent. The design process needs to take into account that an image meaning is changing as well. A cloud used to mean weather, but for a whole new generation, it might mean data storage. A hamburger was once something to eat, now it means options. The three curves of Wi-Fi, once a visual metaphor for sound, is now a global symbol of connectivity.

The best designers have always understood that for a visual system to work it needs to have legs. Multiple legs. Elements need to be moved around and reconfigured constantly, either because the format dictates or because consumers want to be able to configure an experience to their own liking.

We might be dealing with small screens and even smaller attention spans but we’re also dealing with more demanding audiences. Milk from Samsung gets around this by creating an adaptive toolkit to constantly refresh the core brand, condensing brand stories into digital micro moments.

Designers creating for the on-demand age shouldn’t look at screen-based visual identities as a problem. Rather, they are an opportunity to instil ever more character and meaning into the work, to facilitate intuitive interaction with users. It just means that the box we’ve trained ourselves to think outside of is even bigger.


Lippincott: Samsung Milk

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Lee Coomber

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