The icons we use for graphic or visual communication are often specific enough to convey meaning without much discussion or debate. Some of these symbols are so common we don’t even think about their meaning – they cause an automatic reaction, such as the Men and Women symbols, which typically indicate restroom locations. Others symbols are not naturally defined or interpreted.
One instance where a variety of symbols are used are for places of assistance or guidance, you often search for an information desk, called customer or guest services. The locations often have icons that attempt to define their purpose. We often find ourselves asking which is it, the “i” or the “?”. These icons are used interchangeably but are by no means universal. In non-English countries they won’t necessarily use the “i” for information because their word for information doesn’t begin with the dotted character. Others use the “?” in it’s place which is more linguistically universal – but even then some countries use other characters in place of this punctuation mark. So what do we do?
When the subject arises, some designers assume that the information desk is indicated with an “i”– which can be a hindrance to branding and marketing – especially if some company names or product starts with the same “i” character. The use of two symbols could mean two different kinds of information. An “i” may indicate a place of assistance, while the “?” may indicate feedback or a comment and suggestion box. The interchangeability of these two symbols may cause confusion, where the use of both may mean that they really don’t know their left from their right. There is also the aspect of its typography, whether it’s sans serif versus serif or script or something else entirely. Then color – is it blue or green, followed by shape and on and on through the design process.
The many uses of these two symbols have their problems and solutions. What we as designers and organizers of this information must do, is figure out what suits each situation best.
Want to find symbols or submit some of your own, try The Noun Project to browse an evolving database of symbols and icons.