O'Reilly uses figurative illustrations that have no topical/semantic connection to the subject matter for their programming books:

enter image description here

I'm assuming this is beneficial both for building their brand but also for recognizing individual books. Also, the concept is (for practical purposes) infinitely scalable.

Many sites, e.g. cyber-dojo, also use a similar practice to identify users:

enter image description here

We are considering using similar iconography in an enterprise application, and associating our clients with those icons.

For each client (~500 institutions, no individuals) we can have multiple assignments. If the icons are monochrome or have transparent background we may distinguish assignments by use of color, while still mapping the icon to the client.

The application is for our employees only and not something our clients are normally exposed to. They will rarely, if ever, see the icons with which they are associated.

My questions:

  • Have anyone user tested such non-semantic icon-to-object associations? Are there drawbacks I am unaware of? (We're obviously going to use a non-objectionable icon set.)
  • Are there any particular collections you would recommend? We have some money to spend on this type of branding, but it's an internal project so it has to be somewhat reasonable.
  • Are there other best practices I should take into account (e.g., I would like the silhouettes to be recognizable, so I'm rulig out using e.g. only birds' heads, which seem to be popular in such illustration sets).
  • Side note: I personally love the O'Reilly illustrations. It would also be great if the icons have a transparent background.
    – bjornte
    Apr 7, 2017 at 10:26
  • 1
    Associating the icons with clients could be a really bad idea - the icon you use may have bad associations for the client for reasons that you couldn't possibly know beforehand. This could irreparably damage your relationship with that client. Maybe try something really abstract like the ones used in stack exchange when no avatar is available (meta.stackoverflow.com/questions/332880/…). Apr 7, 2017 at 12:21
  • @AndrewMartin Sorry, I was unclear and have updated the question. The clients do not have access to the interface.
    – bjornte
    Apr 7, 2017 at 12:42
  • Also specific to our case, my manager wants something "a bit nice-looking". He prefers figurative icons over abstract ones.
    – bjornte
    Apr 7, 2017 at 12:44
  • I agree with Andrew Martin. Someone could end up with a icon they consider culturally insensitive. Apr 7, 2017 at 20:07

1 Answer 1


Animals are one of the best sets of unique and easily recognizable icons out there. There's high variety, and plenty of room for style.

It's definitely important to note how many you might need - does every client really need a unique image? how many clients?

color is great for easily boosting variety like in this set from istockphoto.com:

If it's really enterprise side-only, it might be worth looking into something that does actually describe the client in a vague, but useful way, also istock

Windows 7 came with quite a few extra generic images to pick from as well if you want more inspiration:


It will always come down to what your users want to see though, so run the same question past them as well

  • I like Windows' generic images. OSX has similar ones. We could go down that path for sure. Great tip.
    – bjornte
    Apr 7, 2017 at 20:11
  • Also updated post with number of clients. Thanks for feedback.
    – bjornte
    Apr 7, 2017 at 20:22
  • 1
    Animals are great, but plants might work well too. There are thousands of flowers and trees. They're more similar to each other of course than animals in terms of colors and such, but are very unobjectionable. You'll also find a lot of CC0 images out there.
    – cloudworks
    Apr 8, 2017 at 17:55
  • Color is the first cue most people use when locating something. Location is way up there also. Actual appearance takes way too long to be useful, it is only a confirmation after locating by position and color.
    – user67695
    May 16, 2017 at 12:43

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