design

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.

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.

Conveying a complex message with simple graphics, part I

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 I: Associate and visualize

Sitting down with Illustrator or Photoshop and trying to tackle a graphic right away is a great way to wind up frustrated and over-caffeinated with very little progress made. Just as you might write an outline before a paper or article, or write a list before hitting the grocery store, the design process is always best when it starts with brainstorming and sketching. A lot of my process happens before a single line is drawn.

The key to this step? Association and visualization.

Simply put: what words, phrases, images and symbolism are socially, culturally, or historically associated with your concept? This doesn’t have to be hours of research, or dozens of books checked out from the library. A good way to start is by googling your concept. In the example below, I made a graphic for a “Tech” category (Fig. 1). The first thought that came to my head was “silicon chip.” I did some light googling to remind myself of how they looked, simplified the concept so that it could be understood with as little detail as possible, and made some sketches that would become the graphic.

 
Fig. 1

Fig. 1

 

Obviously this was a best-case scenario for me. Ideas don’t always come that easily. For the graphic below (Fig. 2), I had to think of a way to show the category of “Healthcare.” Obviously the equal-armed cross came to mind, but it seemed too cliché to me. After some research I came up with the core words and symbols that seemed to always be associated with healthcare: cross, heart, syringe, monitors, doctors, stethoscope, nurses. I narrowed it down to cross, heart, and monitors, as doctors, nurses and stethoscope would be difficult to portray without including a human figure. Syringes are scary and can have a negative connotation, so I eliminated that concept as well. Some sketches later, I decided to go with the heartbeat superimposed on the cross. Simple, effective, and clear.

 
Fig. 2

Fig. 2

 

Keep googling and thinking. No matter how confusing it can get, it’s never more difficult than when you attempt to go in cold

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