Updated: Mar 17, 2021
In the digital world, iconography has grown into a language and a means of communication. It is peppered into our everyday conversations in the form of emoji, and is even the premise for written characters in certain languages. Google, being the promotor of all things functional and systemic change, has taken note of the importance of iconography in our digital communications. It recently opened up a whole new section in its open-source Google Fonts catalog for icons.
The use of symbols and icons has been part of human evolution and visual language is closely related to the creation of alphabets and typography.
Human language first evolved around 50,000–150,000 years ago, which is around the time when modern Homo sapiens evolved. Some of the oldest depictions of language in the form of petroglyphs were discovered as recently as 2013 at a site in Nevada, USA. The symbols carved in the rocks there by early North American indigenous people have been dated to be 50,000 years old. (1) In contrast, our modern alphabets are descended from an alphabet invented only 4000 years ago.
Alphabet symbols were created by a group of people related to the ancient Hebrews, Phoenicians, and Canaanites, living in what is now the Sinai desert.
These tribes derived the idea for communicating language in symbols from the Egyptians, but created their own simplified pictures to represent consonant sounds. The Phoenicians and others of the region simplified the pictures further and often rotated them into different positions. If you use your imagination, you can still make out where most of the 22 letters they created came from. (2) It’s evident our current alphabets evolved from abstract depictions of things in the physical world and are highly stylized symbols.
We use abstract forms to communicate concepts and ideas every day in our physical and digital environments.
If you’ve ever waited at a crosswalk for the signal it’s safe to walk across a busy street, you’ve relied on symbolism. In the digital world, we look for symbols to help us navigate our experience through webpages. Most likely you’ve looked for a magnifying glass icon on a webpage to indicate where a search field is located to help you find specific information.
In the digital world, iconography has become a central part of our online navigation and UI/UX design systems, helping us make sense out of complex user interface on the digital platforms we visit.
In an effort to make page content and icon language easier to translate for algorithms, Google Fonts added the first installment of over 2,000 standardized icons created by Material Design, to their open source database. The icons library is available for download or for use as a web font via Google API at fonts.google.com/icons.
Why does using an icon font matter? Can't I just create one on my own or use an image file? Of course you can, but an algorithm can’t translate the information inside an image or an animation into structured data, even though viewing it may communicate clear meaning to a human visitor. So when you are using custom made visuals or icons in your web design, they may not be indexed by search engines. Using an icon font on the other hand, allows search engines to know exactly what the image is or what kind of information is on the page.
Recognizing our increasing reliance on and need for access to quality UI/UX design resources, and keeping with their mission to provide free tools with equal access for everyone to create with, Google has made Material Icons available to all under the Apache 2.0 license. Google is planning to continue to build out the open source icon sets and add more of these resources to Google Fonts in the future. To celebrate the expansion, Google also redesigned the Google Fonts logo using –– you guessed it –– icons.
If you're a UI/UX designer, you've likely run into a need for creating navigation symbols and icons to communicate the page information. The Material Design Icons are crisp, beautifully crafted symbols for common actions, and are available in a variety of styles (filled, outlined, rounded, two-tone and sharp). They can be customized in the same way fonts can using colors, textures or made into vector files so more time can be spent designing and experimenting with their use. And perhaps one of the greatest benefits in adapting the icons-as-fonts use as part of our language, is they will be easily detected and translated by AI and accessibility software, helping us to increase access to data and information for people with disabilities.
Sources: America's Oldest Known Petroglyphs Discovered in Nevada., NPR, 2013,
Know your company needs to grow deeper roots in the digital economy but not sure what steps to take to make it happen? Floh Creative has launched successful brand campaigns for entrepreneurs, entertainment studios and Fortune 500 companies. Using our proven discovery framework, we help define and position your brand and produce actionable insights for growth.
Ready to talk more about brand strategy for your business? Reach us at 310-564-6881 or visit us online at flohcreative.com to learn more.
Mary Ellen Schrock is the CDO and Chief Disruptor of Floh Creative. As a bright, intuitive creative she has a passion for solving complex design and marketing challenges, especially when they require translating branding needs into compelling concepts and brand stories.
Mary Ellen loves building successful brands! She created Floh Creative as a place to use her talent to build brands, and share the knowledge.