Symbol Design Case Studies

Elevator Button Icons—Open, Close, or What?
The design of elevator button symbols is one of several instances where an industry has created symbology for its own use with little or no consultation with symbol design experts, integration with existing symbol conventions, and a complete lack of usability testing. This article analyzes the problems created by the design of the door open/close button and the likely causes.

Primer on Symbol Design and Usage

Graphical symbols are a core feature of everyday life, appearing on nearly every kind of technology—even technology that contains no electronics. Yet despite of their ubiquity, the rules for designing, using, and interpreting symbols are far more fractured, publicized, and poorly defined than any other aspect of technology in our modern world.

There are several key things you need to be familiar with when designing or using symbols:

Standards for designing symbols
These documents are the core of good symbol design.
Don’t Use Symbols When…
Symbols can be excellent aids to usability and productivity, but can just as often hinder it. Here I survey research and anecdotal reports that provide guidance in when using symbols—especially without text labels—may be detrimental.
Standards Bodies
This page lists all of the standards bodies relating to symbol design that I am aware of. I am quite sure I have missed some, so would appreciate any tips on what else should be added to this list.
Official symbol collections
While I recommend several commercial books below that contain collections of symbols, the only authoritative sources should be viewed as those coming from the organizations that created the respective symbol design principles.

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