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  • Writer's pictureRhys

What's the difference between icons and symbols?

We’re all familiar with things like the @ sign, but is it an icon or a symbol? And why does it even matter?

In this article, we’re looking at symbols and icons in graphic design, and how they can affect visual communication.

So, what is the difference between a symbol and an icon?

Symbols and icons are both used, instead of words, to represent something.

The difference is that icons are a universally understood pictorial example of an item. Think about things like no-smoking signs or road signs; the cigarette or car icons make these easy to understand, regardless of the language you speak.

Contrastingly, symbols represent ideas and require you to learn what the symbol stands for. Think about things like logos; a logo is just a picture until you understand the brand it represents.

For example, an ‘m’ is just an ‘m’, but most people know the one above means something different.

Icons and symbols can be powerful and space-saving when used in graphic design.

We can use icons instead of words to tell the reader where to look for important information, i.e., you could use a telephone or email icon to show contact information.

As well as including your brand symbol on the promotional material for your event, you could also include the Wi-Fi symbol so guests know they can stay connected. You could also include a cocktail symbol to show you have an open bar.

It’s important to remember when working on any design project that every icon has a very distinct meaning, and people can interpret symbols differently. So, it’s important to choose the correct one to correspond with your message and any information you’re providing.

If in doubt, getting help from a graphic designer can help you avoid any major pitfalls.

Now, go back to our original question, is @ an icon or a symbol?

If you’re looking for help or advice on your next graphic design project, we can help!

To discuss this or any of our other services, contact us on (0191) 482 5042 or email us at

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