Distinguishing Between Icons & Symbols

In all cultures and languages worldwide, there are various ways to represent common objects. Signs are used for this purpose, with symbols and icons being two categories of signs that represent something else through association or similarity in appearance. For example, $ is the universal symbol for American currency, while a house image on your mobile screen represents the actual home screen. Although people believe they understand both symbols and icons, they often struggle to differentiate between the two types of signs. This article aims to clarify these differences.


An icon is used to represent a specific category of an object or animal. It is similar to the actual product, and anyone can tell what it stands for due to the similarities. You may have seen various icons on your computer’s home screen, such as the one that looks like a computer which, when clicked, displays the details of different drives and their used space. Generally, an icon’s shape and drawing are the same as the object it represents, making it easy for anyone to understand what the icon stands for. It is important to note that icons can only be made of real objects, and concepts and feelings cannot be depicted using icons, as there are no figures for these concepts (e.g., liberty, freedom, country, peace) and feelings (e.g., hatred, love, anger).


Symbols are signs that have become internationally known due to their association with an object or phenomenon over an extended period. Some well-known symbols include the cross for Christianity, doves for peace, traffic signs, $ for US currency, the plus sign for hospitals, and more. Symbols do not resemble what they stand for and must be learned by people to understand their meaning. All countries worldwide are represented through their flags or abbreviations created using their names.

Key Takeaways

  • Both symbols and icons represent other things, but an icon is a pictorial representation of the product it stands for, whereas a symbol does not resemble what it stands for.
  • A symbol represents products or ideas, while an icon represents only items that are visible.
  • Icons are limited to graphical representation of objects, and one can easily understand what they stand for. On the other hand, one has to learn what a symbol stands for, as it is not similar to what it represents.
Gil Tillard
Gil Tillard
Gil Tillard is an accomplished writer with expertise in creating engaging articles and content across various platforms. His dedication to research and crafting high-quality content has led to over 5 years of professional writing and editing experience. In his personal life, Gil enjoys connecting with people from diverse backgrounds and cultures. His curiosity and eagerness to learn from others fuel his passion for communication. He believes that engaging with strangers can be both enlightening and enjoyable, making it easier to strike up conversations and expand one's horizons.


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