At first glance, logos and icons appear to be one and the same. They both use a visual vocabulary to make their point, so it can be difficult to figure out what makes them different and why they’re different.
But they are different. Very different.
A logo is the overarching identifier of a brand. The best logos are easily recognizable and memorable. They can be purely graphic symbols (think of Apple), a wordmark
of the name of the organization (think of Google), or a combination of both (think of Audi’s Rings and red lettermark or Chevrolet’s bowtie and distinctive, all caps lettering). However a logo is designed, it is the final touch on every product.
Even when a logo is revamped or updated, it still remains instantaneously recognizable and memorable. Remember, the Apple logo wasn’t always the sleek chrome-coloured apple image that it is now – it once was rainbow coloured. But the change in colour didn’t change its representation of the company or the user’s ability to identify the brand.
An icon on the other hand, is a graphical way of identifying sub-levels within an organization or a brand. They’re effective when used for navigating inside a complex website because each icon gives the sub-section a distinct visual identity. (Check out the Waddingtons.ca website for a great example of icons identifying sub-categories that the auction house specializes in.)
Icons are a way of creating an immediate, visual vocabulary between what the creator means and what the user sees without the need to use a lot of words or multiple languages. The best icons use a visual metaphor to convey its message.
In other words, they are there to simplify something that might otherwise be difficult to understand and to give communicators a way of doing their job more efficiently.
In recent years, icons have taken on a more prominent role and have even spilled over into the role of complementing the brand; and logos have even taken on an icon-like style. But the fact remains that they are not the same – an icon serves as an informational tool and a logo emphatically states, “this is who I am.”