What do icon metaphors and symbolism mean?


  • Icon metaphors and symbolism are visual tools that simplify and enhance the usability of digital environments by tapping into our pre-existing knowledge and cultural associations. 
  • These symbols function as intuitive shortcuts, enabling quick and easy interpretation. For example, a dove symbolizes peace across many cultures due to its historical and religious associations, while an envelope icon universally represents email, drawing from the tradition of physical mail. 
  • Icons like these reduce cognitive load and speed up navigation, and cross-language barriers, making interfaces more user-friendly and visually appealing. 
  • Icons must be used with cultural sensitivity to ensure they convey the intended message without miscommunication.

Deep dive

Icon metaphors and symbolism are visual shortcuts that use our existing knowledge to make digital environments more intuitive. They use images and symbols to convey deeper meanings beyond their literal appearance. 

Sometimes they carry cultural or historical meanings and tap into our mental models, communicating complex ideas or actions concisely.

Take the dove, for instance. Across various cultures and religions, it's seen as a symbol of peace. While it might just be a bird, its peace associations stem from historical and religious stories, like Noah's Ark from the Bible.

Similarly, the envelope icon is widely used for email functions, drawing on the historical use of physical mail.

Then, there are straightforward symbols like the heart, representing love and affection, or the lightbulb, suggesting a new idea or inspiration. Ultimately, picture yourself at an airport in Greece, searching for the restroom — you’d look for the universally understood symbols, right?

Comparison of restroom signs: left side shows text in Greek, right side shows universal pictograms of a man and a woman.


In graphic design, icon metaphors and symbolism help communicate more clearly and create a visual connection between the message and the user.

Comparison of car representations: left shows a real Audi, middle shows a detailed line drawing suited for large sizes, right shows a simplified icon for small sizes.


How it works

Icons act as a shorthand in technology, using symbols instantly recognizable to most users. This means less brainpower is needed to interpret them because they draw on your previous experiences or cultural knowledge. For example, a house symbol typically means 'home' across various digital platforms, quickly conveying a return to a starting point or menu.

The impact of cultural understanding

Since icons use common metaphors and symbols, they can cross language barriers, but they must be chosen with cultural sensitivity in mind. Designers need to be aware of icons that may have different meanings across cultures to avoid miscommunication. For example, a thumbs-up icon generally signifies approval or a job well done in many Western cultures. However, in some Middle Eastern cultures, this gesture can be considered offensive. 

The relevancy of icons can also vary with the audience. In applications like Microsoft Word or Adobe Photoshop, the floppy disk icon once stood for 'Save,' but it's becoming less recognizable to younger users who have never used a floppy disk.

Screenshot of an old word processing software toolbar, displaying various icons for file operations, text formatting, and editing tools.


A study by TeachHub revealed that only 14 percent of children recognized the “Save” icon.

Series of icons representing the 'save' function: floppy disk, cloud download, download box, badge with arrow, and hard drive with arrow.


Why icon metaphors and symbolism matter

Icon metaphors and symbolism streamline user interactions by reducing reliance on text, thus speeding up decision-making and navigation. They are quicker and easier to process than text labels, reducing cognitive load. When we see a text label, we have to read it, decode it, and then interpret it. This can be a taxing process, especially if there are a lot of labels on the screen. 

By using icons, you can reduce the amount of text that users have to process, which can make your interface more user-friendly. For example, traffic signs use symbols to convey information quickly and effectively to drivers moving at high speeds, relying on universally recognized shapes and colors to enhance comprehension and safety.

Last but not least: the visual appearance 

Finally, icons can also help to make your interface more visually appealing. Well-designed icons can add personality and charm to your interface. They can also help to break up large blocks of text and make your interface more visually interesting.

By carefully considering the metaphors and symbolism you use in your icons, you can create an interface that is more intuitive, user-friendly, and visually appealing.

❓Questions designers should ask themselves

By asking the right questions, designers can question their decisions, find areas to improve, make sure nothing is overlooked, and reduce mistakes, leading to better, more thoughtful designs.

  • What is the primary function or concept I want to convey?
  • Is there a commonly used metaphor or symbol that accurately represents this function or concept?
  • Will my target audience easily recognize and understand the chosen metaphor or symbol?
  • Is the icon culturally sensitive? 
  • Is the icon visually distinct from other icons in the application? 
  • Does the icon maintain consistency with the overall design?
  • Does the icon align with the overall visual style and branding of the application?

⚠️ Common mistakes to avoid

Learning from your mistakes is important, but many problems can indeed be predicted and avoided. Based on Cieden's collective expertise, we're sharing the most common ones.

  • Using overly complex or detailed images that are difficult to discern at small sizes.
  • Relying on culturally specific metaphors or symbols that may not be universally understood.
  • Failing to maintain consistency in the visual style and design of the icon set.
  • Overusing icons to the point of clutter, which can overwhelm users and hinder usability.
  • Neglecting to test the effectiveness of the icons with real users.

👥How to convince stakeholders

One of the most crucial skills for a designer is being able to explain and back up their ideas. If you're having a hard time convincing stakeholders, take a look at our tips to help you communicate better.

  • Icons can significantly reduce the cognitive load on users, making the application more intuitive and efficient to use.
  • Well-designed icons can break language barriers, making the application more accessible to a global audience.
  • Icons can help to create a more visually engaging and appealing interface, which can contribute to higher user satisfaction and retention.
  • By using familiar metaphors and symbols, icons can tap into users' existing mental models, reducing the learning curve associated with the application.
  • Consistent use of icons can help to reinforce the application's brand identity and create a more cohesive user experience.

To further support these arguments, draw on relevant research and real-world examples that demonstrate the effectiveness of icon metaphors and symbolism in UI design. By presenting a strong case backed by evidence and best practices, you can secure stakeholder buy-in and ensure that your icon designs are given the attention and resources they deserve.

🛠️ Useful tools 

These tools will make your job easier and more effective.

  • Noun Project – browse a vast library of icons with various styles.
  • IconJar – use an icon organizer for storing and managing your icon sets (available for MacOS).

🤝 Credits

Our content combines the knowledge of Cieden’s designers with insights from industry influencers. Big thanks to all the influencers for sharing awesome content!

Icons — The Only Language Everyone Understands by Gasper Vidovic

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