Conveying a complex message with simple graphics, part III

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 III: Embrace extreme simplicity

Say you have to come up with a graphic for a think tank, and their focus is philosophy. How the heck are you supposed to turn something as complex, varied and intellectually taxing as philosophy into a simple image? Your first thought is people. Maybe a bust of Plato or something? Now you’re thinking columns, togas, books, a monocle? Before you know it, you’re banging your head on your desk because philosophy could be anything. What are you supposed to do?

Just writing that paragraph was stressful for me, and I chose philosophy for a reason. So take a breath, relax, and I’ll provide you with a fun fact to calm you down. If you click the first link on any given Wikipedia page, the trail of links will always lead back to one article: philosophy. That officially makes it one hell of a complex subject. But the process of distilling and simplifying remains the same! As an example, here’s what comes to mind for me when I think “philosophy:”

  • Ideas
  • Religion
  • Struggle
  • Thinking
  • Changing cultures
  • Paradigm shifts
  • Questions

Which of these can be symbolized? Let’s break it down.

  •  Ideas? Can’t be visualized, they’re amorphous. We could go the lightbulb route, but you know better than that!
  • Religion? Full of booby-traps and clichés. Controversy should be avoided in this type of design if possible.
  • Struggle? Again, amorphous and clichéd.
  • Thinking? See struggle and ideas.
  • Changing cultures? Pretty hard to show this without a complex series of pictures involving human figures.
  • Paradigm shifts? This is a decent possibility, but hard to convey simply.
  • Questions? There are tons of ways to visualize a question. And really, there’s already an important symbol for it. One that everyone recognizes. One that i just used 8 times in the last paragraph. The question mark! It might be a tad cliché, but let’s explore this further.

There is a subtle difference between clichéd, overused imagery and the visceral, basic, deeply culturally-ingrained symbol. In thinking about the question mark I realized that it’s rarely used as a focal-point in a design. Possibly, it’s considered so basic that it’s often overlooked. Or people fear using it because it makes a design seem trite or outdated. But there are two undeniable facts about it that we can use to our advantage. First, nearly everyone who speaks a romance language (and some who don’t) knows what it means. And, most importantly, it’s damn simple. It’s a line and a dot. You can’t get simpler than that!

I’m not going to show an actual graphic, because I want you to think about it for yourself. What could you do with a question mark to make it special? How could you incorporate other themes of philosophy, or even some of the ones we disregarded above? Creating something simple and powerful is usually more difficult than creating something complicated. In the long run, however, it makes for much more impact and clarity in your designs and in your life.