This past summer, I met my family in Junction, Texas to kayak the south fork of the Llano River.

It’s a pilgrimage we make every summer, and it’s always a delightful time of swimming, cooking, eating, games, and generally being without cell service and internet. There are always multiple generations of children running about, and that’s what led to one distinct conversation with a five-year-old girl about telephones.

I forget how we got onto the subject, but there I was, sitting next to Kindley in her car seat while she detailed to me how phones used to look. That they had a part for your mouth and a part for your ear, and a handle in between. How they were connected to the wall, sometimes by a curly cord.

After all the jokes and stories I’ve heard about how children fail to identify a “phone” as anything other than a rectangle with rounded corners, I was a bit surprised by her knowledge. I guess I shouldn’t have been—I myself was pre-dated by rabbit-ears-wearing televisions, but I still know what one looks like, how it works and, obviously, that it existed. I also know what cars looked like in the 1920s and what Conestoga wagons looked like before that.

Her knowledge gave me hope for a problem that’s becoming larger and larger for visual designers: the case of disappearing iconography. Sue Walsh, a well-known design professor and former Senior Art Director for Milton Glaser, details this wonderfully in a Medium article I’ve re-read on more than one occasion. If you don’t want to read the whole thing, I can tell you that she basically talks about how technology makes a lot of our careers look the same (person at computer = designer, writer, architect, banker, marketer, administrator, hacker) and a lot of our tools look the same (smartphone = camera, calendar, bank, email, book, weatherman, game). And she puts it all in perspective when she explains:

“Imagine if the words sunglasses, thunder, continent, and sorrow were suddenly replaced with a single, brand-new word that meant each of those things, depending on their context. How would writers respond? How would readers know which meaning you were seeking when the new word was used? This is what is happening to designers.”

As a designer who builds lots of logos and therefor lots of iconography, I identified with her struggle immediately. If you had to design a simple icon right now for the concept of radio, could you? Radio waves look like many other things. Music notes could be many things that aren’t radio. Phones are used as radios, and boomboxes aren’t really used at all.

It’s easy to see the struggle. I had also experienced this phenomenon in a conversation with a friend about AIGA’s classic “woman” icon—you know, the triangle dress with a circular head and rounded appendages. My point was that society has accepted this icon to mean woman, but for how much longer? When someone decides a dress is inaccurate because not all women wear dresses, what will we be left with? A high-heeled shoe? A bra? Clearly it all goes downhill from here into some pretty hard-core (and unflattering) stereotyping. Someone in the audience will certainly point out that we’re moving in the direction of not needing women’s restroom icons, and perhaps that’s true. But icons for gender are just two examples in a million others that are starting to get very tricky.

On the other hand, things like a floppy disc icon for “save” are probably outdated, but pretty engrained in our technology experience. A ten-year-old may not know that the save button is a floppy disc, but he knows that the icon on the button means “save,” and that’s good enough. It’s functional in spite of being inaccurate.

Where it really starts getting problematic is when you’re building a NEW icon. Or, in my case, a new logo. When you’re working with literal imagery (for instance, an apple for an education nonprofit), people have context for that visual element. They already connect apples with teachers. They can remember what the logo looked like, for the most part, when they step away from it. However, lots and lots and lots and lots of teacher/education logos use apples. We’re aware of far more of them than we ever have been historically, too, since we have the internet and can SEE all the teacher + apple logos simply by Googling.

Being creatives, we’d prefer to do something that hasn’t been done, perhaps by ignoring the apple. Or by ignoring the rest of the typical education imagery altogether. But this leaves us in the interesting position of building an abstract symbol for which viewers have NO context. Abstract imagery like geometric shapes and interesting or colorful type treatments can be arranged in infinite ways to create something new, but will it be memorable if the logo’s audience can’t connect to it through their own associations?

Is it worth the trade-off of the obvious pencil icon (will we even use pencils in a few years?) for the contextually ambiguous but totally new abstract solution? Won’t all the abstract solutions, in turn, start to look the same?

Let’s look at the two ways visual iconography makes it into our lexicon:

It’s introduced by a very large existing platform (such as the Bluetooth icon or the relatively new Google “G” logo) or it’s used by something that becomes a very large platform, such as the Nike check, which eventually grew to be so famous it now doesn’t even need any accompanying wordmark.

Pop culture adopts new or existing imagery and changes its meaning through use, proliferated by the internet. (Such as the eggplant emoji, which is used to mean, well, not eggplant.)

Neither of these methods of introducing visual iconography are helpful for the abstract logo of a small business or entity. Nothing I build will become understood or adopted immediately because our clients simply don’t have the scale and I, personally, don’t have the Twitter influence to unveil my solution to the world at large. Building language is a slow process. It moves at the speed of civilization.

Now, I didn’t have an answer for our disappearing visual language when I started writing this, and I don’t have one now. But if five-year-olds still know what phones looked like back when they had curly cords, we’ve got hope.

And, while I’ve got you, let’s all agree that the peach emoji means peach. 


> Jo, @Jo_Layne