Looking at the Pieces: Using Symbols & Icons in Your Visual Story

Last month, Visually teamed up with Wiley & Sons Publishing to give away three free copies of Stories That Move Mountains. We have selected the winners through a random drawing and have notified them by replying to their comments on the original article. Congrats to the winners! As one of the co-authors of Stories That Move Mountains, one of my biggest goals is to bring useful design tips to people that may not design every day. Stories That Move Mountains describes the CAST process, which involves developing strong content, identifying your audience and knowing everything about them, determining the best story to communicate, and putting it all together in a successful presentation that can bring forth the desired change. Here, we focus on how to put together some of the pieces of a cohesive final presentation — specifically, symbols and icons. Now, we’re not talking about Marilyn Monroe or other cultural icons, we’re talking about graphic representations of ideas, concepts or things. “Things” that could be a role within an organization, it could be part of a process, or it could be a deliverable of that process, but it all comes down to how you want to code the content. These are elements that may be needed to show the problem you are trying to solve, and we’re assuming you have already determined use of an icon is the best method, as opposed to a photo, text, etc. In most cases, symbols and icons help to represent parts of a more complex process of some kind. Now that we’ve nailed down the context… This is a four-part study. 1. So here you are, unsure how to proceed with developing some relevant visuals. Go to the whiteboard and mindmap, based on a key-word surrounding the icon you need to represent. Chances are you have multiple elements you need to represent, so create a mindmap for each one to determine key words, elements or items that relate to them, so you can determine what the icon might have for a “subject.” Put aside your mindmaps momentarily now and proceed to step two. 2. Icons, symbols or signs have actually been studied. The study, called “Semiotics,” determined that there are several icon creation methods—meaning the icon may not always need to be a “thing.” In the book for instance, I reference fire. If you are depicting fire, it could be an actual graphic icon/symbol of fire, it could be the word fire, or it could be something that hints to fire—like smoke or a firefighter’s hat. Often times, the straight-forward graphic of fire will work just fine: then it’s just a matter of determining style, which we’ll get into shortly. Just remember that when it comes to coding your page, icons can be as simple as a shape that acts as an identifier, or as complex as an illustration. In most cases, though, they are simple enough to work small on a page that contains other elements. 3. LOOK OUT, it might get messy! Now take some of the more significant words and findings from your mindmap and use them to search for icons online (for reference and inspiration only). What do you like? Why? Now let’s stretch a bit. You have determined your approach, and assuming you have an icon set—meaning more than one—you need to make sure they work together. They should have a similar style and feel—and since they are probably meant to be part of a bigger picture, they should be fairly simple and effective at smaller sizes. What does “style and feel” mean? Is it “loose” or refined, does it break the boundaries or stay neatly within? Is it daring, loose and reckless or mild-mannered and understated? How does that line feel? In classes, I have always challenged students with that last question. Pay attention to the very nature and details of the shapes and lines, for both consistency and how they feel—or the impression they give you or your audience (test them out on some trusted colleagues). Truth and perception is in the details… because taken as a whole, all these little things make a difference to your audience. You should use similar treatments to lines and line weights, shapes, and colors. Beyond that, it’s about seeing them together, and making sure that any one of them doesn’t stick out or draw unwanted attention. Mind you, like I’m implying here, you may WANT one of them to draw attention, so just make sure it’s justified. Sometimes simply changing the icon color to warm colors will attract (cool colors recede), and the line weight stays the same. 4. Lastly, implement them on your page. Whether part of a layout or an infographic, make sure they work with the other elements on the page, and fine-tune as needed. Icons rarely will sit alone in your presentation. They are made to visually code the content when text or other imagery is not the right choice. Not only do they provide variety, but we all know reading a presentation is not the best way to affect change—especially if you’re speaking at the same time. You may even want to get your first drafts onto your visual story sooner, because seeing them together as a whole could change everything. Make all attempts to reference the elements directly on the page is coding or defining is needed—meaning tell us once wit a direct reference and let the audience do the rest. You set it up, and the audience engages in their own way. That’s what we call creating a visual bombshell instead of bullets—PowerPoint pun intended. Good luck! Mark D. West is one of the authors on Stories That Move Mountains, a book about using stories and visuals to make top notch presentations.

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