Strategies & Insights

Demystifying Icon Design

Posted: September 27, 2009 by
Lin Wilson

Icons and infographics, which combine text and illustration, are highly valuable tools for package designers in today's competitive global market. This visual shorthand quickly communicates a product or service's features, benefits, or brand promise. Creating a well-thought-out library of icons further conveys credibility and bridges understanding across multiple languages and cultures.

A fast food company recently reevaluated the ingredient icons on its wrappers and found a mishmash of illustration styles cobbled together over the years. More than a few icons weren't translating into other languages and cultures. For instance, a bottle with the letter "C" on it is only relevant to English-speaking "catsup" consumers. An overhaul of the icons to make them consistent and more relevant would bridge understanding with both customers and line cooks.

With real estate at a premium on packages, ad agencies for Molson Beer, Fellowes Shredders, and Memorex turned to Funnel Incorporated for its creativity and expertise in boiling a message down to efficient icons. Informative and entertaining, these designs communicate everything from brand personality to package contents and technology features.

Small but mighty

When Funnel Incorporated was approached by ad agency Foote, Cone & Belding Communications to create an icon for Fellowes' new line of shredders, the objective was to illustrate a bulldog that could live up to a bold new tagline: "The world's toughest shredders." The goal was achieved by creating a dog with more muscles, aggressive body language, and intimidating scowl while avoiding clich├ęs such as saggy jowls. Exaggerated teeth reinforced the shredder's sharpness and a pointy spiked collar further implied the Fellowes commitment to serious shredding.

Deliberate but sparing use of color draws the eye to an icon, prioritizes key information, and ties in with a corporate color scheme. In this case, gray was used to give the bulldog's teeth and collar spikes a metallic look and yellow was used to highlight the dog's physique.

Judicious use of black improves readability and gives icons the production flexibility photos lack. Photos are reliant on proper resolution and sizing, but icons can be reproduced ?" high or 20" high and still look great. Like good typography, the key to icon creation is to use a line weight that reads quickly and legibly. If lines are too thin they won't be visible. This discipline pays off when icons are resized or used as a badge. Well-designed icons can also hold up to embossing, embroidery, and other challenging production techniques that require simplification without losing original integrity.

Less boring gray boxes

How do you capture the features and benefits of a computer when the machine is a boring gray box? Or how do you articulate a service combining a complex process and various levels of support? Icons and infographics are especially useful at breaking the rules of reality.

Memorex could have combined line drawings or photographs of its consumer using its audio products, but instead they wanted to streamline its core categories in a way that was much more engaging. By building in the function of each audio product, each icon was boiled down to its essence.

The new system created a visual vocabulary that could be used everywhere. Tiny headphones classified one type of cassette for the enjoyment of personal music, while a microphone indicated speech recordings. A more obscure or complex visual reference would have compromised the utility of the system and its quick, universal readability.

One-inch billboards

Molson Beer turned package design on its head when its agency Crispin Porter + Bogusky transformed the ubiquitous beer label into an icebreaker with its "Twin Label Technology" campaign for Molson Canadian. Using the backside of the bottle, they convinced Molson to print a second label that featured provocative pickup lines. Funnel illustrated over 200 labels with icons that completed such memorable phrases as "I'm with the band" or "I'm a secret agent."

The creation of each pickup line generated no less than three concept icon sketches for the agency to choose from. During the sketch phase, it's best to be as prolific as possible to get the bad ideas out of the way early. And while a basic rule of thumb with icons is to illustrate the most recognizable version of an action with a twist, Molson often preferred the concept that took a little longer to mull over.

In this case, comprehension speed wasn't the priority. Relating to the beer drinker with tongue secured firmly in cheek better facilitated bonding the customer to the product and Molson brand. Keep in mind that their consumer is relaxing on a bar stool or at a party, and not staring up at a wall of deodorants in a big box store. Molson reported sales popped up 40% after the new packaging rolled out.

The key to the label's success was developing strict style and production guidelines so hundreds of icons felt consistent and part of the Molson brand. An antique woodcut style reminiscent of a typical brewery logo tricked the eye into thinking it was the beer's primary label. The icons utilized a dark navy and gold metallic color scheme on a red background to make the icons pop under bold red, white and blue headlines. Each subject was meticulously drafted with controlled line weights on a digital tablet to read very small. Too much detail or a heavy line weight would have been more difficult to read and reproduce on the metallic foil label.

These projects highlight just some of the strategic thinking, creativity, and production discipline required for the creation of effective package design icons and infographics. Consider these guidelines when designing a new package or auditing the graphic elements of an existing package. The effort will help make the most of every inch and tell a brand or product's story in a more concise, engaging way.

Lin Wilson is the creative director and cofounder of Funnel Incorporated, an information design firm based in Madison, WI, that combines right and left-brain thinking to streamline complex information into icons and infographics. He can be reached at 608-828-0280 or