Design System
Information Perception

How can visual appeal, complexity and concreteness be independently controlled in icon design?


Signs, symbols and icons are everywhere. These graphic visual representations can transcend regional language, survive for millennia and externalise complex thoughts. But what makes one icon more comprehensible than another? What rules must we follow to make an ugly icon beautiful?

Icon design has a crucial influence on the quality of user experience with digital interfaces. Yet to date, research investigating icon use and processing has been based on existing or outdated sets of icons. Moreover, there are no existing guidelines about how new icons, with specific aesthetic characteristics, can be created.


Manipulated characteristics can have independent effects on icon perception and icon function understanding.

Iconic sets new grounds for understanding icon design and perception. During the project, EPFL+ECAL Lab joined forces with psychology researchers from the University of Fribourg and Bournemouth University to create eight unique sets of icons that respond to three defined and controlled characteristics: concreteness vs abstractness, simplicity vs complexity and appeal vs ugliness. The resulting 64 icons were then evaluated by participants on their function, aesthetics, complexity and concreteness. Not only did the results generate new knowledge to show that characteristics can be independently manipulated, they also informed guidelines for designing icons for research purposes.

In August 2022 we launched an experimental set of icons that includes independent metrics for each dimension, such as aesthetics, visual complexity, and concreteness, which can be downloaded here.


Nicolas Henchoz

Project Management

Dr Andreas Sonderegger

Research Assistant

Lara Défayes

Graphic Design Lead

Romain Collaud

Graphic & Interaction Design

Lara Défayes

UX Psychology

Dr Andreas Sonderegger with assistance of Stanislav Riss

Bournemouth University

Pr Sinè McDougall

Swansea University

Dr Irene Reppa

Direct download