Stock Icon Design

by Luke Wroblewski January 26, 2005

The ubiquity of visual symbols associated with particular Web interactions or content has lead to a growth of stock icon offerings. Icon designers utilize icon semiotics to package common representations as ready-to-use sets for Web development and design teams. Some of the best examples include:

This approach provides companies with a less expensive alternative to custom icon design. However, it may also limit the communicative potential of icons within a Web interface. Icon systems are not only useful for clarifying functional areas and creating distinction between the various modules within Web applications, but they are also great for creating personality and providing emotional impact. These points are well articulated by Uday Gajendar:

  • “Icons [are] manifestations of functional requirements in the product plan—action triggers and status cues that support information display and decision-making.
  • Icons reflect the character and voice of the application –adding a sense of poetics to enhance the user experience, to alleviate the tedium of tasks that rely on drop-down menus and other standard web widgets
  • Icons [are] part of the whole system of interactions, at a page level (in the organization of components), an architectural level (as visual indicators resting on invisible wireframes that the user may or may not perceive), and a transactional level (as points of access to various paths or flows).”

As such, common icon representations are most valuable when used as baselines upon which to build a custom visual vocabulary. Removing the icon design process from the context of an application, its audience, and its team is likely to reduce the an icon system’s ability to communicate the subtleties of an application’s interactions and personality to end users.