Communicating with Icons

If research gives just the facts, evaluation is distinct in that it often has an extra layer of interpretation and communication. We don’t just tell people 63.8% of students passed the class, we say “so what?” and interpret whether that 63.8% is good, worse, or whatnot.

I recently got an email from Angie, with a good example of this. She wanted to know how to support helping clients figure out which of their activities are of high, medium, and low priority once evidence has been collected. What visual symbols could she put right into the report to quickly communicate the level of priority?

I happened to be rereading Stephen Few‘s Information Dashboard Design when I got Angie’s email. Few includes some examples, noting how it is so common and so wrong to use the typical red/yellow/green that seems everywhere. Why so wrong? Few points out how difficult it is for those with colorblindness to distinguish between red and green. I’d also add that the colors don’t reprint well on a black and white computer (and then copied and faxed, as my reports tend to be disseminated after I deliver them to clients).

Here are six other options for communicating three levels of priority or performance using icons that I just sketched. I’ve also included one from Few’s book that I like a lot.

What other symbol systems do you use? Add them in the comments below!


  1. Checking for a replacement laptop bag now….

    I’ve seen smileys (smiling) (straight mouthed) (frowning)

    thumbs (up) (fist type thing) (down)


    Consumer reports uses a little bullet thing that I find confusing because you have to read the key to understand it (you didn’t say that the examples had to be good)

  2. Can you suggest a good source website for good quality and good range of icons??? I have spent hours hunting, unsuccessfully for a matching set to suit a document I’m preparing – do all the cool ones you use in your images hide in a secret place?

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