Conveying a complex message with simple graphics, part II

Graphic, icon, and logo design for social media are just some of the many things we do for clients here at Helios Media. One of the most difficult aspects of design lies in the task of distilling a complicated, multifaceted idea or message into a simple—or at least visually decipherable—graphic, icon or symbol.

In this series of posts, I’ll show you some simple steps that you can take to create better, simpler, more intuitive graphics. Whether in the form of a logo, icon, infographic or web graphic, there are a few core ideas that can help you discover your preferences for—or design for yourself—an image that works for you.

Part II: Avoid cliches & anachronisms

 
 Fig. 1

Fig. 1

 

The healthcare symbol (Fig. 1) from part I of this series isn’t just a good example for association and visualization, it’s a great example of an extremely common problem that occurs when you try to create a powerful, simple symbol; you sit down, put your thinking cap on, fire up Google, and then it happens. They’re all over, as far as your eyes can see. They’re…clichés. And they’re everywhere.

 
 Fig. 2

Fig. 2

 

For example, the above (Fig. 2) is a graphic I made for the same project as the others in this post. The category this time was “Advanced Manufacturing.” I got started on the research right away, not knowing much about the field myself, and having little to associate with. As soon as i began my search, an endless stream of symbol-vomit was presented to me. Factory buildings, smoke stacks, gears & cogs, trucks, hard hats, etc. The problem with these are not only are they clichés—which aren’t inherently bad if you can find a creative way to portray them—they were also anachronisms. The classic symbol of a factory building is one from the industrial revolution. Trucks and hard hats are all well and fine, but not only does it portray a very non-advanced manufacturing era, it takes the subject and broadens it to encompass far too many professions and industries.

You probably already know what symbols and imagery are cliché. You have seen them a thousand and one times, on subway advertisements, crappy fliers and bad websites. Therefore, they’re fairly easy to avoid—just try to keep the “easy way out” scenario off the table when you’re researching your subject.

Anachronisms are a different matter. When you choose words, symbols and iconography for inspiration, carefully consider whether or not these things are still relevant in today's world. Just because something has been associated with a subject since the dawn of time (read: hardhats and trucks), it doesn’t mean that it’s still effective as a visual representative. For instance:

  • Computers. Most people use laptops these days, and computers are thinner and sleeker than ever. So using an old beige-era PC as a symbol for IT? It doesn’t work.

  • Time. How many people do you know who still own an analog, bell-adorned alarm clock? Or a grandfather clock with a pendulum? How many operating clock towers do you encounter on a daily basis? Though clocks and watches are still extremely pervasive in our world, there are better ways to show them that might make your design stand out.

  • Audio/Visual. Though many old-timey symbols for audio, film, etc. have become incorporated into modern computer icons, a great way to visualize these concepts creatively is to reject those out-dated symbols. Does music really look like a megaphone? Does film really look like a double-reel camera from the ‘40s? Does television really look like a square box with rabbit ears?

Keep asking yourself these questions with every project you have, and your result will probably be a more creative, more original, and more striking graphic.

Stay tuned for part III of our ongoing blog series, Conveying a complex message with simple graphics.