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A Treatise on Icons, Part One: The Rules of Iconography

The biggest innovation of The Settlers of Catan may not have been its gameplay but instead its production. It reduced instructions that were previously available only in the rulebook into icons and glyphs that appeared on hexes, cards, and player aids.

This major benefit of this innovation was usability. As the eurogame industry replicated this concept, its games became a lot more playable: players didn’t have to remember as many rules; instead they were elegantly printed on the components (or sometimes integrated with them).

A secondary benefit of this innovation was internationalization. A single printing could be made for a game (or for some of its components) and then sold into multiple countries. However, this should at best be considered a useful side-effect. Icon design that concentrates on internationalization instead of usability can actually damage the players ability to play that game, thanks to icons that make a game harder to play because they replace elements that should have been text. If internationalization is a requirement and a game really doesn’t require text, great, but if it does, then either the game needs to be changed or the text needs to be included.

However, creating icons for usability (and perhaps internationalization) isn’t as simple as just scribbling little pictures on cards. It requires design that is as careful and precise as the design of the game itself.

Designing an Iconic Language

Well-designed icons form a language, and that language has parts of speech, just like any other. It includes objects, which are icons that represents things in the game such as resources, markers, tokens, playing pieces, and the players themselves and it includes transformations, which are icons that represent changes to those objects, such as movement, placement, drawing, and discarding.

A strong iconic language will include both of these building blocks, but they should be thought of differently, as they’re used in different ways.

  • Object icons should be created for simple objects in a game that will be transformed in some way. Generally, object icons will be pretty easy to recognize because they tend to be representative of the objects themselves.
  • Transformation icons should be created for any repetitive actions in a game, which are either frequently used or which appear infrequently but in at least a few different contexts. Transformation icons may actually violate the first rules below, the Rules of Recognition, because they depict more complex concepts than object icons … but of course it’s better if they don’t.

Though it would be very nice to have an iconic language that covers everything in a game, that goal can often be unattainable; there are just some things that can’t be iconified.

For an iconic language to be really great, it should follow seven golden rules.

The Three Rules of Recognition

The first three rules ensure that the icon is usable.

1. Icons must place substance over style. It’s certainly preferably for a game’s iconic language to be totally beautiful. However, that should never come at the cost of an icon’s usability. In other words, don’t ignore the golden rules of icon design when you’re concentrating on attractiveness.

2. Icons must be easily recognizable. There should be no thought involved when looking at an icon. A player should be able to glance at an icon and immediately recognize what it represents. Object icons should always be great representations of the actual objects, and transformations … should at least be meaningful.

3. Icons sometimes must be recognizable from afar. This isn’t an issue for a card that’s in a player’s hand, but is critical for most other cases. If a card is placed in front of a player, it’s usually important for other players to look at it. If icons are printed on a board or some other object that goes in the middle of a table, it’s typically vital for all players to be able to recognize it. The latter problem can sometimes be offset by the placement of instructive icons or two or four sides of a board. In that case, an icon just need be recognizable from a foot or two away. Otherwise, an icon might need to be recognizable from four or more feet away!

The Six Tactics of Recognizability

Several tactics can ensure an icon’s recognizability, whether from near or far:

  • A. Icons should be iconic. If there’s a relatively universal way to depict a concept, it should be used. Generally, an icon should be representational in some way, not abstract.
  • B. Icons should be simple. The less detail that an icon contains, the more likely it is to be easily recognizable. Thus, a silhouette is simpler than a line drawing and a line drawing is simpler than an attempt to represent the icon in 3-dimensions. This of course must be contrasted with the needs for both representationalism and beauty: the balance point will lie somewhere between the extremes. But remember the First Rule of Recognition.
  • C. Icons should be old-fashioned. Here’s one way to keep icons simple: don’t use fancy Photoshop effects. Bevels, semi-transparency, drop shadows, and other tricks are likely to confuse rather than clarify icons unless used very carefully.
  • D. Icons should be colorful. Multiple colors on an icon have just as much likelihood to confuse as complex drawings. However, color blocking, where unique colors are used for specific icons, can improve the readability of icons. A color-blocked icon can even have underlying complexity in its line drawing, because it’s the color that will stand out, not the mass of lines.

A few other tactics apply specifically to object icons:

  • E. Object Icons should link to the components. Ideally, an icon should look just like its linked component. However, the tactics of recognition might instead result in an abstracted view of a component. A game can also flip things around and print an icon on the actual component.
  • F. Object Icons should be granular. Icons should generally show a few of something, not a lot. In other words, just one brick or a couple of sheep, not a whole wall or an entire herd. Generally, if you try to show too big a mass of something, the viewer will just get lost in the details.

The Three Rules of Consistency

Three more rules address how icons interact with each other as you build up a complete dictionary of icons for your games.

4. Icons must be totally consistent. Inevitably, some (perhaps most) icons will only become truly recognizable through the context of the game. Take an arrow: in the context of a game about trading, players will quickly realize that an arrow represents exchanging one good for another; while in the context of a game about moving pieces around a grid, it’ll become obvious that the arrow represents movement across the grid. Because iconography is at least somewhat contextual for each game, usage within a game must be entirely consistent. That way, as soon as a player understands a game’s particular dialect of the iconic language, the rest of the game immediately opens up to them.

5. Icons must be placed consistently. Putting specific types of icons in specific places on components can greatly help with recognition of that icon. That’s because a player now has two additional bits of context — what an icon looks like and where it is — to quickly suggest to him what the icon means.

6. Icons must be entirely unique. To ensure consistency, icons must be not just be similar for like effects, but also different for unlike effects. Two different actions should not be represented by overly similar transformation icons, nor should two different objects be represented by overly similar object icons.

The Final Rule of Completeness

A final rule makes sure that an iconic language doesn’t leave out vital facts.

7. Icons need to be entirely comprehensive. Icons that explain everything about how to do something except one niggling (but important) detail are almost as bad as not having the icon at all. Mind you, this doesn’t mean that everything in a game must be iconified, it just means that if an icon is going to explain something, it must explain  it totally. You don’t want an object icon that doesn’t differentiate between two similar but critically different components (e.g., two different decks of cards) and you don’t want a transformation icon that leaves out an important part of an action.

Final Thoughts

Having read through this article on icons, you might be wondering “Where are the illustrations!?” I’ve got one or more follow-up articles that will exemplify the rules of this article using the examples of real games, good and bad, and all the icons will be on full display there.

A first draft of this treatise was written as a suggested methodology for the development of icons in Race to Adventure!

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The original article can be found on the great Mechanics & Meeples