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Icons: Best Metaphor Wins

TWENTY SECONDS.  Website icons are visual metaphors. Quickly, within the mere twenty seconds you have to draw someone into the content of your website, an effective icon connects different pages and ideas with a compelling image and often a single keystroke. Icons should enhance text, replace text, never clutter a page nor add confusing decoration. Icons are small intuitive symbols that stand for something else entirely, something much more complicated. STOP.

That was twenty seconds. Your visitor should already have clicked on an icon.

Like a wedding band is an simple immediate iconic symbol of the complexity of marriage, website icons should symbolize elegantly something about your website. Icons must be fitting and compelling.  Two articles loaded with examples of how to use icons are “A Guide to Using Icons in Web Design,” Spoonfed Design and “How To Use Icons To Support Content In Web Design, Smashing Magazine.

When icons work best, the icons themselves create an experience of what they connect to. Icons should also resonate with your logo.  Do you remember the first time you saw the Twitter Bird or the RSS icon, or even the Reddit guy? The image itself was interesting, or at least weird enough, to draw you in, and the feeling of their website merged with the feeling of that image. But like all metaphors, used often enough, icons eventually become stale. They become cliches. They die. That is not to say they don’t work any more.  Even a stale icon stills symbolizes something. The conventional Twitter bird still takes us to Twitter.  But the icon just isn’t that interesting anymore. “The bird is dead.” It doesn’t feel like a twittering bluebird anymore. It’s just the button you click to go somewhere else.  Rarely does anyone even recognize the conventional Twitter icon as a bird anymore.  It’s just the Twitter button.

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The challenge of an icon contest is figuring out how to breath new life into the merely functional icon that has become a dead metaphor. Let’s first see how an expert did it, a sort of “spur of the moment” thing:

“I feel the spur of the moment thrust deep into my side. The present is an inexorable rider” Henry David Thoreau .   Ugh!  And now revived, the “spur of the moment” metaphor lives again to prod us painfully into the future. This is what an icon must do. We all know too well the cliche icons… arrows, trashcans, life buoys etc.  Yet, an effective icon cannot be so new that no one knows what it means, nor can it simply repeat the ho hum up arrow for upload.  It takes both poetic sensibility and design skill to create an elegant new icon.

Aberthol Twitter Ugly Bird

Aberthol Ugly Bird on left side of the ring

Let’s look at The Ugly Bird Icon contest being run by DesignContest.com and see if these renditions of the Twitter bird might breath life back in to the old bird again. All of these Twitter birds can be downloaded for free. DesignContest is also running another Twitter icon contest with less ugly birds, also free to download.

Crystal Twitter on the Right side of the ring

In fact, DesignContest is a design crowdsourcing platform that specializes in icon contests, in order to recruit designers who will do paid design work for the design contests they run for their clients. DesignContest’s idea is to create a stable of great artist boxers competing in-house to do artwork for clients who post art jobs they want DesignContest artists to complete. DesignContest runs the competition between their own artists, and the clients get the best work at the lowest price.  These contests for work also help the designers continually advance their skills through competition.  Here is yet another batch of social network comic style icons they are featuring.

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DesignContest holds icon contests both to bring in new design talent, and to develop that talent through competition with each other professionally.  DesignContest designers enter a competition for a paid job and then the client picks the best job. DesignContest monitors the progress and quality of their competing designers. The winning design gets the gold and the job, second place gets a silver award, third bronze. The icon design competitors are akin to poetry cage-fighters: whoever designs the best metaphor wins.  Jctoledo and Morabira are their top designer poet-pugilists at the moment.  Don’t mess with them unless you know how to handle a metaphor!  But you can certainly pit them against each other and choose the victor.

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