Signs: Symbol, Index, and Icon

In Design Theory on March 8, 2010 at 12:13 am

A sign can be defined as a lettered or patterned board that conveys meaning, command, or directions. Another kind of sign is more intangible or spiritual, like, “a sign of success.” For a graphic design discussion, let’s stick to the first definition. Generally speaking, there are three types of signs: symbol, index and icon. Depending on the project requirements, we may be asked to design one or more of these sign types. Let’s look at the differences and some examples of each.

A symbol does not have direct connection to what it represents. The meaning usually needs to be learned through association.

An index is a sign that directly points to the message or instruction.

An icon is directly related to what it represents, the meaning is immediately evident and it can be a smaller part that represents a whole.

Symbol, Index, and Icon examples


Sobottka, Jason, 2010. HUM311 lecture.

  1. Hey, I think you may have icon and index a bit mixed up here. You wrote that “Icon is directly related to what it represents”. The definition according to Charles Sanders Peirce is “The icon physically resembles the signified. Signifies by resemblance.” I good example is the home icon on websites. It looks like a home. The index signifies by direct connection. An index is evidence of something, or it directs the attention to something. An index is a type of sign that signifies by having a direct connection to what it signifies – smoke is an index of fire, and a pointing finger is an index of what it indicates.

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