May 16, 2023

Iconography vs Illustrations — And How to Use Them

Illustration of a duck and icon of a duck on a blue background

Almost every brand guide and design system we create for our clients comes with a set of custom iconography and illustrations, but both are more than just decorative visual elements. As branded materials and graphical metaphors, they act as descriptive tools that allow companies to explain complex concepts artistically. Since our brains process pictures about 60,000 times faster than text, illustrations and icons help our audiences retain and remember information more quickly.

The reason behind these visual elements may be the same, but their use cases and delivery are fundamentally different. How do you choose between iconography and illustrations when conveying information to your audience? Read on to learn the characteristics of both, and how to use them on your app or website.

What is iconography?

Iconography is a visual language that helps users operate different digital products. Independent from any copy or text, they symbolize ideas or actions users can take on a particular interface in a simple way. For example, clicking an emblem of a house can take users to their home screen. By design, icons are usually straightforward and small in scale, which helps users navigate digital apps with ease and it saves room for larger pieces of content.

Lumiere icons designed by Big Human

What are illustrations?

Sometimes, we need a visual aid to help audiences fully grasp the theories, instructions, or explanations we share. Rather than representing simple actions or ideas, illustrations are interpretations of abstract concepts. Let’s say you’re a logistics company and your website provides an explanation of how your service works; an illustration can graphically conceptualize your methods of acquiring and moving goods. Since illustrations provide visual clarification, using people and objects to depict specific scenarios, this often means the design lift for illustrations is typically larger and more involved. Illustrations can also be pictorial expressions of brand identities, allowing companies to showcase more of their personalities.

Whistle illustrations designed by Big Human

How to Choose Between Icons and Illustrations

Choosing between iconography and illustrations is a classic case of form following function; it all depends on the level of detail you want to include. We first have to look at the context and from there, we can decide the best path forward. Here are a few questions to ask yourself when deciding when to use icons and illustrations.

Are you telling a story?

Use illustrations. There’s a reason picture books exist. They help children learn what the narrative is about and who is part of the story, allowing their imaginations to fuel their understanding. Illustrations for older audiences operate the same way. Designs, of course, should be elevated and aligned with your overall brand, but they allow you to carry characters or concepts from one communication to the next. This is particularly important when explaining things like your brand origin story or how your product or service works.

Do you need to help users navigate your app or website?

Use iconography. Since icons are straightforward visual representations of ideas or actions, they help users intuitively understand their purpose. If you have an Instagram account, then you’ll know clicking the tiny paper airplane allows you to share or send a post. The trick is making sure each icon is simple enough to be immediately understood by everyone in your audience.

Are you sharing nuanced or complex information?

Use illustrations. Think of illustrations as artistic, thoughtfully designed graphs, offering a window into your content’s theme or a dataset’s technical findings. They can pull your audience into the story or analyze data on a more granular level.

Do you need a quick way to remind users about a specific idea?

Use iconography. Icons enable users to commit larger concepts to memory. On the Service Pages of the Big Human website, we use icons to signify specific steps we take for each project. An illuminated lightbulb usually represents the innovative discoveries we find in our Research & Strategy phases.

Do you want to showcase your brand’s personality?

Use illustrations. They allow you to share more detailed brand expressions, so your audience can get a better idea of your personality. Illustrations are also often larger, which offers brands more creativity and design autonomy.

If you’re looking for some help designing your icons and illustrations, send us a message.

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