Why do we need icons in user interfaces?

Icons help us understand things clearly and acts us a guiding light. Discover how icons help us shape user interfaces and tips to keep in mind while choosing your icons.

Interface with Streamline Core icons (right) vs without icons (left)

Imagine using your favourite app or website without any icons - just walls of text with links and buttons. It would feel sterile and dull, making everything harder to navigate and understand.

Icons are far from just decorative elements in user interfaces. They serve important functions that profoundly shape the user experience.

If you've read the article on icon evolution, you would already be aware that icons have been present in interfaces for as long as memory serves. However, their presence isn't as extensive as one might think! It emerged only about 43 years ago if we were to do the math. So, what prompted the sudden need for icons in interfaces?

Redefining interfaces: The icon evolution
In the world of user interface design, icons act as the visual glue connecting us to the digital world. While the core meaning of icon stays the same, their appearance changes with better displays and technologies.

Icons are like road signs

"I believe that good icons are more akin to road signs rather than illustrations, and ideally should present an idea in a clear, concise, and memorable way." - Susan Kare
Signages: Heathrow airport (left); Road signs (right)

Icons, like road signs, help in conveying information quickly and universally in a concise and memorable manner.

Icons leverage our brain's ability to rapidly process visual information. Studies show that our visual cortex can interpret images in as little as 13 milliseconds. The use of familiar and relatable visual metaphors allows icons to tap into existing neural connections in our brains.

Why you should use icons in your interface?

Let's get straight to the point:

1) It helps in visual communication

Icons serve as visual cues to convey meaning quickly and efficiently. They can represent complex concepts, actions, or objects in a compact and highly recognizable symbolic form. Well-designed icons are able to communicate meaning at a glance through their visual appearance alone, without the need for explanatory text.

For example, an icon of a magnifying glass immediately brings to mind the concept of searching without the need for the word "search", whereas without icons it looks like a text field.

Search icon (Nova by Streamline) helps in visually communicating a search bar (top)

2) Icons act as an universal symbols of communication

Icons transcend language barriers, serving as a universal language understood globally. They trigger rapid recall of associated meanings or functions due to the brain's quick processing of visual information. This stands in contrast to text, which often requires translation and takes longer to comprehend.

For example, the download icon is universally recognized as meaning “download” even though the word for “download” is different across languages. Users do not need to speak the same language to grasp what familiar icons represent.

Download button in English (top) and Japanese (bottom); Icon used: Sharp Line by Streamline

3) It helps to create a strong sense of brand

Carefully crafted icons enhance interface cohesion and visual appeal, serving as integral components of the overall design rather than just functional elements. When aligned with proper guidelines, icons can reinforce a brand's visual identity.

Consistently using branded icons across various products and touch-points increases recognition, as users become acquainted with and associate these icons with the brand, ultimately fostering loyalty over time.

Can you identify which brands these icons belong to?

Answer: Ikea (top), Airbnb (bottom)

4) Icons make interfaces more accessible

Icons can provide an alternative means of navigation and understanding content for users with disabilities or impairments, such as those who may have difficulty reading text. The visual and symbolic nature of icons allows them to convey meaning without relying solely on written words.

Someone with dyslexia, for example, may find an icon easier to recognize than reading a word. For users with visual impairments, icons can be designed with helpful attributes like high contrast to maximize visibility.

Users with disability recognize icons over words and high contrast helps in visibility

5) Helps users scan and read faster

Icons also aid in the scannability of a user interface by enabling users to swiftly identify key features or actions, thanks to their compact, visual nature.

Recognizable shapes and imagery stand out from text blocks, guiding the eye and allowing users to grasp meaning at a glance, reducing the need for extensive reading.

Micro Solid icons for easy scannability during a banking app onboarding

6) It makes interfaces compact

Icons condense functionality and meaning into a compact visual form, conserving space compared to text labels, which is crucial in UI design for smaller screens like mobile devices.

They enable designers to maintain accessible interfaces with key features without clutter or tiny text, ensuring clean, efficient, and usable experiences across all devices and screen sizes, particularly beneficial for small screens where space is limited.

Usage of icons (Plump by Streamline) makes the card look visually better and compact (top)

Leading interfaces with icons

In the world of design, we're witnessing a fascinating trend where companies are putting their trust in icons to communicate without relying on text. Think about it: When you see a little cogwheel icon, you immediately know it's about settings.

  • Airbnb: They've integrated icons seamlessly into their interface to explain various features and listing details, each one carefully crafted to reflect their brand.
Airbnb web and app interface using icons specially designed for their brand

  • Google Flights by Google: Using icons to convey trip details, traveler count, and even departure and arrival locations, all with just tiny, intuitive symbols picked from Material Design.
Google flights on mobile interface

  • Tinder: The famous dating and social app takes a bold approach by letting users take core actions primarily through icons, showing a real confidence in their users' understanding.
Tinder mobile app using icons for all user actions

So, what kind of icons should you use in user interfaces?

Things to keep in mind while choosing icons for interfaces:

  • Scalability: The ability to maintain visual clarity and integrity when resized to different dimensions without loss of quality or comprehension.
Home icon (Core Line by Streamline) resized to show minimum and maximum scalability

  • Simplification: Involves reducing visual complexity to essential elements, enhancing clarity and comprehension while maintaining their representational integrity.
Random icon (left),Sharp Line icon set made for interfaces by Streamline (right)

  • Diversity: It encompasses a broad range of styles, quantities, and variations, including different weights (such as light, regular, bold) and variations in design (such as line, solid, duo, flat) , ensuring adaptability to various contexts and user preferences.
Streamline icons showcasing different styles and variations (Core, Plump, Flex and Sharp)

  • Formats: The file types and specifications used for storing and displaying icons, typically including vector formats like SVG for scalability and raster formats like PNG.
Icon (Core by Streamline) in different formats displaying the differences in icon structures

Create iconic interfaces!


All the essential vector icons for user interface, based on a tiny 14px grid for maximum legibility.

Core - Essential Icons for User Interfaces

20,064 icons | Line, Solid, Duo, Flat

Explore Core Icons


A vast collection that serves as an icon encyclopedia, featuring every concept you may need and presented in five versatile styles for maximum adaptability.

Ultimate - The Encyclopedia Of Icons

74,828 icons | Light, Regular, Bold, Duo, Colors

Explore Ultimate Icons


A collection specifically designed to excel on a very tiny scale, designed using simplified shapes to ensure legibility at the smallest possible sizes.

Micro - Tiny Icons For Complex Interfaces

2,994 icons | Line, Solid

Explore Micro Icons


A serious set with a geometric and high-tech look that makes these icons a modern, bold and classy choice to be part of a more professional looking project.

Sharp - The Brutalist Set for Bold Interfaces

17,952 icons | Line, Solid, Duo, Flat

Explore Sharp icons

Use Streamline icons and share your creation with us @streamlinehq — we would love to repost them on our Twitter page. Happy creating!