Reflecting on both familiar and new on things I use every day.

We see icons every day, though we may not always be consciously aware of it. BAM — I just used one just now. Confused? Let’s take a look at how Charles S. Peirce, a philosopher from the 19th century, breaks it down.

Peirce’s 3 Categories of Signs

Source: Vanseo Design

An icon is a type of sign, a pattern that has meaning. In order to understand what an icon is, it helps to understand the other categories of signs as well. Vanseo Design does a good job of describing the different categories, which I’ve copied below for your convenience:

  • An icon has a physical resemblance to the signified, the thing being represented. A photograph is a good example as it certainly resembles whatever it depicts.
  • An index shows evidence of what’s being represented. A good example is using an image of smoke to indicate fire.
  • A symbol has no resemblance between the signifier and the signified. The connection between them must be culturally learned. Numbers and alphabets are good examples. There’s nothing inherent in the number 9 to indicate what it represents. It must be culturally learned.

So what was the icon I used earlier? Well, words are typically used as symbols, but they can also be icons. Whereas most of the English language is based on words with arbitrary meanings, onomatopoeia words like achoo, bang, ribbit, and the example I used earlier, BAM, are representations of what the word looks or sounds like. Therefore, onomatopoeia is commonly referred to as examples of iconicity in linguistics. (More examples of iconicity.)

Finding Icons in my Apartment

I don’t know about you, but I actually didn’t think about words being icons until today. What are other icons are in my everyday life that I might not have been aware of?

I first took a look at my facial cleanser. I was already aware that it had the vegan icon on it because I make sure of it before I bought the product. However, I never carefully looked at the self-preserving icon, which I don’t think I’ve ever seen on any product before. I knew what the fighting animal testing icon meant because I’ve learnt that rabbit-related icons on beauty products usually meant cruelty-free. However, today when I actually thought about the icon, I realized that the rabbits seemed like they were actually fighting each other. I immediately read the text below to verify it didn’t say “fighting animals” instead of “fighting animal testing.” Why would they use fighting animals to represent fighting corporations with animal testing?

The back of my mouthwash

The back of my mouthwash has a list of icons along with seven sentences of text. Without the text, I can probably only accurately tell what two of them mean. In this case, the icons serve more as decoration than information. The cruelty-free icon this time is a seemingly happy rabbit with heart-shaped ears, which makes more sense to me than fighting rabbits. The simplified shape and curves in the icon make it easier to recognize as well.

Dish soap

This is my first time seeing this variation of a cruelty-free icon. The cruelty-free icon on my dish soap is more abstract and less recognizable than the one before. I’m not sure how the shooting stars add the to the information it’s supposed to convey, but I’m glad that the rabbit seems happy at least.

Because I already knew this brand is vegan, I didn’t know what the vegan icon looked like on the label until today. It looks different than the ones I usually see, which isn’t a big surprise considering how many variations there are. However, all of them contain the word “vegan” or “V” so it does the job in any case. Today, I learned about Kosher icons and that they’re usually represented with the letter K on food labels. I also learned that my nut butter is clean, raw, and bee-friendly, which is all very reassuring until I start wondering what “clean” means and if my other food is “unclean.” I’m sure it’s fine.

Makeup remover

I found this icon on the back of my makeup remover by a Korean brand. Without needing to be able to understand Korean, I could easily tell that it’s a recycle icon even though it’s not exactly the same as the more common ones we see. The bold triangle shape made up of three arrows is recognizable enough to be understood even in a different language. (I did happen to take Korean one semester in college, and the word in the icon is indeed labeled “plastic.”)

Hair cream

I found this on the bottom of my hair cream made by a Japanese brand. I can’t read Japanese at all, and it’s hard for me to tell what the square icon with the two arrows is. It looks like it could be a recycle icon, but I can’t be completely sure because it deviates too much from the convention that I’m familiar with. Although I’m not sure if this icon is conventional in Japan, culture is something that does influence icon designs and their meanings.


Icons are even on fruit! I’m not immediately aware of what “fair trade certified” means from the term, but the pictorial icon gives me an idea that it’s about fair treatment towards workers.

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