Iconic readings

Compiling the best books on icons

Curiously, even today, the best content related to icons is still on paper.

That's why we want to share with you the books that have influenced us the most throughout our years of learning and, even though some of them are hard to find nowadays, we blindly recommend them to you. So be sure to check your local library or keep an eye on eBay, but ignore the speculators. ;)


History and theory

Not all books have to be visual compilations, the theoretical basis is the first thing we should learn. How are we going to know how to design icons if we don't know why and how they were born?

Signs and Symbols
Their Design and Meaning

By Adrian Frutiger
Published by Studio Editions, 1989

Photographs from SPREAD

Frutiger's text is an essential resource for those interested in visual language in general, focusing on the evolution of symbols and complemented by numerous drawings. It's a perfect introduction to learn the need to communicate with images that has always fascinated us since ancient times.

The World of Signs
Communication by Pictographs

By Martin Krampen, Michael Götte and Michael Kneidl
Published by avedition, 2007

Photographs from raumPROBE

Although part of the content on this book consists of organizing signs as some sort of encyclopedia, the interest lies in its theoretical but accessible introduction to semantics. Semantics is the study of meaning in language, so this text tries to explain the meaning of pictograms and their utility as a communication tool.

Gerd Arntz
Graphic Designer

By Ed Annink and Max Bruinsma
Published by 010 Publishers, 2010

Photographs from Dax Rowling

This book talks about Gerd Arntz's remarkable contribution to ISOTYPE, a project that made evident the need to use icons to communicate information efficiently. This text not only serves as a tribute to Arntz's legacy, but also offers an insightful experience for those seeking to understand the unique role of icon designers.


Design

The best thing about a field that was born 40,000 years ago (I'm looking at you, cave paintings) is that many of its original characteristics are still valid today and some books have been able to define them with true mastery.

Pictograms, Icons & Signs
A Guide to Information Graphics

By Rayan Abdullah and Roger Hübner
Published by Thames & Hudson, 2006

Photographs from designworkplan

Here you'll find a brief but comprehensive history of icons and their use in the commercial and creative fields over the past century. But in addition to the historical overview, this book includes a wealth of tips and practical examples that will help you see icon design as a perfectly accessible field. A must-have.

Diseño de iconos y pictogramas

By Elena González-Miranda and Tania Quindós
Published by Campgràfic, 2015

Photographs from UnosTiposDuros

Okay, it's only in Spanish, but believe me if I tell you that it's the most complete book on icon design to date. It covers absolutely everything, from project planning to its execution, including the creation of concept maps and optical adjustments. It even has a chapter dedicated to the creation of an icon set based on a typeface.

Pictogram Design

By Yukio Ota
Published by Kashiwashobo, 1987

Photographs from Design Reviewed

Probably the most difficult to get, but this book offers a deep dive into the world of pictogram design. Through in-depth analysis and practical examples, the book not only highlights the cultural importance of icons but also provides essential guidance for modern design practices, almost 40 years after its publication!


Compendiums and inspiration

This list wouldn't be complete without some compilations, whether we want to learn about the evolution of icons, see the signs that have become a universal standard or appreciate the fantastic diversity that surrounds us today.

Handbook of Pictorial Symbols
3,250 Examples from International Sources

By Rudolf Modley
Published by Dover Publications, 1976

Photographs from BookBang

A complete and organized collection of pictograms from various sources, covering categories such as education, transportation, family or finance. It also includes public symbols for basic installations and notable systems that, despite being built in the 70s or earlier, are still very relevant in our daily lives.

Symbol Sourcebook
An Authoritative Guide to International Graphic Symbols

By Henry Dreyfuss
Published by John Wiley & Sons, 1984

Photographs from Cooper Hewitt

Henry Dreyfuss, a renowned industrial designer, presented this book as a practical and complete reference for everyone interested in the world of symbols. It's essentially a collection of visual signs, but with a more practical approach than the previous book. That's why it's considered by many as a modern symbol bible.

Official Signs & Icons 3

By Mies Hora
Published by Ultimate Symbol, 2005

Photographs from Amazon

With over 8,400 images of sixteen different sets, this book stands as a reference for the most internationally recognized (and standardized) icon systems. It's a thoroughly researched book that serves as a visual compendium, the perfect reference for anyone wishing to have these systems compiled in one place.

Iconism
Designing Modern Icons and Pictograms

By Wang Shaoqiang, Katherine Ye and Anton Tan
Published by Sandu Publishing, 2020

Photographs from Sandu Publishing

This book is a delightful source of inspiration for the design of contemporary icons. Divided into three sections (Visual Identity, Wayfinding and Interactive Design), it showcases innovative styles and applications from designers around the world. The typical book that you won't be able to stop looking.


Other readings

But you can also learn about icons without reading specifically about icons (well, maybe mentioning them superficially). Let's finish this list with some less orthodox but equally interesting book recommendations.

Information Design Unbound

By Sheila Pontis and Michael Babwahsingh
Published by Bloomsbury, 2023

Photographs from Information Design Unbound

Icon design falls under the umbrella of what's known as information design. This book covers its basic principles while delving into the professional practices, ethical considerations and challenges faced by information designers. Ultimately, information design is honest and user-centered, just as icons are.

Structuring Design
Graphic Grids in Theory and Practice

By Ulysses Voelker
Published by niggli, 2020

Photographs from Counter-Print

This one is about visual organization, offering practical advice on the role of grids and how they help us achieve structured designs and better understanding. Does it sound familiar to you? Icon design is clearly influenced by the use of grids, so knowing the function of these tools (even in other fields) can be of great help.

The Wayfinding Handbook
Information Design for Public Places

By David Gibson
Published by Princeton Architectural Press, 2009

Photographs from NAi Booksellers

A complete and concise guide on the basic principles and best practices of wayfinding design, where icons obviously play an important role. Wayfinding involves creating systems that help people navigate physical spaces effectively, a notion that it's clearly transferable to our tiny symbols.

Olympic Games: The Design
From Athens 1896 to Tokyo 2020

By Markus Osterwalder
Published by Niggli, 2020

Photographs from Klim Type Foundry

Osterwalder offers a vast overview of the history of the Olympic Games and their design, including the pictograms. The book explores the identity of each edition, details the creative processes and celebrates the diversity and uniqueness of this universal event, just as we celebrate the diversity and uniqueness of icons.


Isn't it great to step away from the screen for a few minutes and get lost in the pages of a nice book? Whether you're a professional or just curious about the evolution of symbols, these readings will help you delve a little deeper into the world of iconography. Worst case scenario? You'll have learned something.

Oh, and if you think something is missing from our shelves, let us know!

Happy reading!