Defining Iconography: The Graphic Art That Accompanies E-Commerce

The human brain prefers pictures over words. Learn about iconography, and how expertly-designed icons can enhance your Shopify store.

What Is Iconography?

Iconography refers to the visual images or symbols used for identification of a larger concept or interpretation of content. In e-commerce, iconography refers to all images or symbols on your Shopify store, collateral, and various marketing paraphernalia. Icons are usually used in place of words, providing clarity or direction without the use of any text. Iconography is essential for quite a few reasons. For one, using icons can reduce the clunkiness of a site by decreasing the amount of crowded copy. Additionally, the human brain processes icons 60,000 times faster than text. This gives visitors the ability to move throughout your site more quickly and easily. The importance of iconography simply can’t be overstated; here’s what you need to know.

The History of Iconography

The concept of iconography is an old one, but its modern-day usage refers to a slightly different subset of art. The word iconography comes from the Greek word “ikon.” It has religious origins, and was used to describe objects of devotion from Greek churches. This religious connotation is what shaped the definition of icons as something with special meaning. However, the definition has certainly evolved since then, and extends far beyond religion.

In historic art pieces, icons were translated into symbolism with relatively literal imagery — for example, paintings that used chains, angels, or animals to convey a feeling or meaning. Today, iconography with respect to marketing denotes artistic icons influenced by graphic design. While iconography is still prevalent in traditional art, today’s art of iconography refers to digitally rendered icons used to simplify a brand’s mission, whether that be information or conversion.

How Is Iconography Used in E-Commerce?

With online shopping, you only have seconds to make an impression on a customer — and often, words aren’t the way to do it. Iconography has a huge role in directing traffic and sales. In e-commerce, iconography appears as small illustrations with simple lines and very few colors. They’re created by analysing the content of a section or linked page, picking the most important informational concepts, and developing symbols that best represent them. E-commerce iconography appears in the form of header and footer symbols, illustrated buttons, and informational direction.

Some Simple Iconography Examples

You’re used to perceiving iconography, even if you don’t realise it. Think of your email provider’s homepage. There’s likely something akin to a plus sign for creating an email, a forward arrow for forwarding an email, a backwards one for replying, and a star symbol for favoriting or highlighting important messages. Take a look at your spam inbox — is it represented by a trash can? A warning symbol? On e-commerce sites, these icons extend to buttons that link to your cart, favorite or “hearted” items, personal account settings, and search query boxes.

Some More Complex Iconography Examples

Quality iconography goes beyond the intuitive “my cart” or “my shopping basket” illustrations. These visuals show what words have trouble explaining, especially when speed of comprehension is paramount.

Let’s say your Shopify store is for clothing, and you sell a few categories of apparel: tops, bottoms, and accessories. While those words are easily identifiable, the human mind will more quickly process icons for those categories, especially if combined with some form of copy that directs them to a product category page.

You can see how this becomes even more important as categories become more specific. For a store that sells only hats, icons for floppy sun hats, baseball caps, top hats, and bucket hats will help those without a clear understanding of products’ definitions find their desired shopping category.

The Importance of Good Iconography

There’s iconography, and then there’s good iconography. Defining “good” iconography is tough to describe but easy to notice in practice. If you’ve ever seen a symbol and scratched your head at its meaning, you’ve found an example of bad iconography. Proper iconography checks a lot of boxes.

For one, good iconography is simple, clean, and cohesive. Iconography is often monochromatic or dichromatic, composed of few colors so as to not distract from meaning. Icons should be clear in what they’re conveying, and a collection of icons should be easy to scan. When icons are directly associated with a physical object or action, they’re easier to understand. Additionally, icons don’t have to be boring. Efficient iconography enhances brand identity with consistency. As extensions of a brand or store, a library of icons should be uniform enough that they can be conceptually “built on” to create additional icons as needed in the future.

The importance of good iconography goes beyond clarity on a website. For Shopify stores with products, a visual guide to inventory is unbelievably helpful in increasing average order value, speed of buying, and conversion. For Shopify stores that provide services as opposed to products, icons serve a dual purpose. They’ll help clarify the category of services, of course. But additionally, a well-made icon will convey expertise, knowledge, and importance. Moreover, iconography transcends language; breaking down written barriers in favor of universally-understood depictions makes the user experience more inclusive and innate.

How You Can Enhance the Iconography of Your Shopify Store

Iconography falls under the broader spectrum of brand identity and brand marketing. With such a focus on its importance, iconography is often overused by novices: a mistake that ultimately devalues the impact of each individual icon. For adding iconography to your Shopify store, you’ll want experts who know how to design quality icons and use them tastefully and effectively.

At Radiant, our comprehensive brand identity services can include effective iconography for your site and brand assets. Our designers from a mix of disciplines — graphic, animation, and UI/UX — craft icons that represent your brand and mesh with your logo, typography, color scheme, and overall visual direction. Through iconography, we help elevate sites to be user friendly for all and enhance how your store functions for its visitors. Get in touch today to see how iconography can benefit your store’s conversion, or to learn more about the other services our Shopify agency offers!