I think we're all aware that iconography is most effective when communicating simple/established/conventional ideas that can be understood without any words at all - like search, print, share, etc. But if you've set up a nice aesthetic courtesy of some modern-looking icons and your site has very few visual assets available besides those icons, is there any reason not to use icons to break up what would otherwise be just a massive page of text - even if these icons are not as conventionally understandable?

One example would be a content list where each item could, on some sites, have a thumbnail image. On the site in question, there's no related photo for each content item, so the list is just a huge list of text. I could use an icon on each list item, to represent content type (article, research report, etc.). But the content types are too subtly different to be represented PURELY with iconography alone. It'd still have to say "Article" "Research Report" etc. somewhere. Does that mean that the icons are a waste of space, and end up increasing visual clutter? Or is this iconography, even though it's not effective without framing text, still a valid solution for introducing some visual interest, some negative space, and to provide a break from reading?

  • It sounds like there's no 'real' value except for the look and feel you are going for..?
    – Fractional
    Nov 15, 2013 at 15:10
  • The value would likely just be in making the big list of otherwise text-only results a little more visually interesting. There's a small chance that users would begin to recognize the icons as they navigate the site repeatedly, but they'd never be seeing them without the corresponding text anyway, so that isn't really a motivating factor. Nov 15, 2013 at 16:20

3 Answers 3


You would gain value in creating a more pleasing interface and a better visual hierarchy. And yes that is a part of the over all user experience. I think to often we (UX designers) neglect the value we gain from improved visual hierarchy and pleasing interfaces. While interfaces should be minimal and goal oriented, they should also be joyful to use and adding a few icons to make a list of text more appealing does increase value to the overall user experience.

Also, with consistent and understandable icons, your users will start to understand what the icons mean over time. There is some thinking that non-standard icons have a high cognitive load to the reader... but I tend to disagree, I think this argument over the hollow icon does a good job explaining.


Icons have been found to depend on individual perception and thus labels are necessary to disambiguate their meaning. Moreover, it has been shown that it is impossible to create a complex visual language.

However, this doesn't mean that icons are no good in complicated systems; just that it will take users a while to get used to the icons and disambiguate their meaning and thus in the beginning the might seem of little use. Frequent users will most probably find them beneficial, though.


Icons are extraneous whenever they're not universally recognizable. I always say that the paradox of using icons is that should be clichéd enough to be used without text...even though they should never actually be used without text.

I would use text for the things that you mentioned and instead focus on organizing them in a convenient way (eg, alphabetically, in groups, by importance).

  • I agree that they're extraneous as icon-par-icons, but are they useful as visual differentiators even if people can't tell what they represent without the surrounding context? Nov 15, 2013 at 19:32

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