Top 7 Most Overused Icons, Shapes & Symbols Used in Graphic Design

Top 7 Most Overused Icons, Shapes & Symbols Used in Graphic Design

Is all design looking the same to you? Are you following graphic design trends subconsciously?

These are two questions to ponder over the next four weeks in this four part series showcasing the most used techniques, effects, icons, shapes, concepts, fonts, stock images and clichés used in design today.

The Four Part Series

Below is the second article of four.

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Top 7 Most Overused Icons / Shapes / Symbols Used in Graphic Design

In the last article, we looked at some of the most used design elements, in this one we go a bit further and look at particular shapes / icons / symbols that always seem to appear in graphic design related work, usually because of their perceived semiotics.

These icons / shapes / symbols are neither ‘good or bad’, however they are the most common found in today’s designs. Vector stock images have been used to portray each element for simplicities sake.

Hearts

The good ol’ heart is by far the most used icon in design. Made famous by Milton Glaser’s I Heart NY design, the heart can now be found everywhere. The heart has long been used as a symbol to refer to the spiritual, emotional, moral, and in the past, intellectual core of a human being and is the most well known symbol to represent love.

Skulls


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On the other end of the scale we have the infamous skull. The skull is a symbol of death and rebellion and seems to find its way onto many clothing and music related designs. Wouldn’t you agree?

Wings

The use of wings in a design is usually used to portray freedom as people associate wings with angels and birds. Wings also have the perceived values of hope, speed, elevation, enlightenment, guidance, protection and inspiration. Wings are found very often in tattoo designs and are all too often, used in combination with skulls and crests as seen in the pictures above and below.

Heraldry / Crests

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Wikipedia defines Heraldry as the “practice of designing, displaying, describing, and recording coats of arms and badges. The origins of heraldry lie in the need to distinguish participants in combat when their faces are hidden by iron and steel helmets.” Perhaps this is why crests come up so often in designs (especially tattoos), they distinguish one from another… or does it?

Lightglobes

The lightglobe is all too often used to portray an idea, creativity, innovation or something new. Don’t get stuck into using these cliches, get creative.

Stylised Arrows

Stylised arrows seem to make their way into many designs without real need. They do however, get the point across (no pun intended) – they make you look where the arrow is pointing and they give a sense of motion to a design.

Silhouetted City Skylines

City skylines are usually very complex so this is a clever and simple technique used in designs to give the location of the scene without making the design too complex which is why it used so often.

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The main point that I want to portray by outlining these overused elements, is to try to encourage people to use these effects in a manner that suits the design, not just because they are available. Be imaginative and creative and always make an educated choice in your designs.

Do you agree? Do these symbols come up too often in designs? Why do you think so? What other ones would you add to this list? Voice your opinions below.

56 thoughts on “Top 7 Most Overused Icons, Shapes & Symbols Used in Graphic Design”

  1. Number 6 brought a smile to my lips, after taking a look at your logo 😉

    Having said that, I think arrows stand out in that they are essentially functional without being symbolic (or iconic). An arrow can be simply an arrow, without any associated imagery.

    Karl | Mothership’s last blog post..3G iPhone. Here it is.

  2. Hi Karl,
    Haha, yeah but my logo is more of a pencil / initials than an arrow but it does ‘point’ so to speak. This post is more just a stab at what iconic symbols we are bombarded with in most designs and as a student I see way to much of these symbols from my other peers.

  3. I guess they’re elements that can be considered overused when used unimaginatively. It’s about context really… if you’re just plonking an arrow into a design just to have something in that empty space you don’t know how to fill, then I’d say you’re using it in the way that you’re complaining about here.

    Sometimes though, the obvious choice is the best for a design, and you can be trying to be too clever if you want to ignore those situations for the sake of ‘creativity’.

    By the way, anyone else seeing sperm in the arrows example? 😉

  4. Rob,
    Yeah it is about context, as like with nearly all designs and yes sometimes the best choice is the obvious choice but you should always give thought to your choices.

    Roger,
    Hehe, yeah true didn’t even notice that. Wonder if this will get to Digg?

  5. I see your point that there are some aspects of design that are overused, and sometimes abused. I hope every aspiring designer realizes that there are some thing that shouldn’t be used for a fall back. Now that my point has been made I also think that this styling isn’t just thrown out the window. Use appropriately use sparingly.

  6. i don’t consider the heart and arrow icons/symbols as overused, they are in the graphic examples you give here, which are the trendy types you find in every other vector pack available online. Used well I consider them classics…similar like coca cola/pepsi compared to the gazillions other soda varieties available nowadays…..the bad thing is that the internet has the tendency to make us designers lazy nowadays since there are so many “designer packs and tutorials” we can download and with the “digg,stumble” and other sites of the like we just fish around in the same big pond…..scary to your creativity come to think of it!

  7. The sunburst behind the city scape is even worse.

    I would say the ever present swoosh or atom-like motion but that’s more for the logo design roundup.

  8. You know what else is overused ? Curves and straight lines ! You see them everywhere these days !

    Seriously, it’s a good list, but just because a symbol is used a lot doesn’t mean it’s overused. And most of the time I’d argue that these symbols are used precisely because they are so popular and widespread.

  9. I totally agree with the skulls, hearts, wings and crests. As a designer I tend to stay away from any kind of symbols or icons that get overdone. It can take the uniqueness out of creativity. Some other symbols that I’ve seen overused are birds and/or clouds.

    kat’s last blog post..The Archive

  10. I could see why people use the heraldry/crest in logos. I read in the E-Myth Revisited that it inspired confidence in your brand above most other symbols (evidently a triangle is the worst symbol to have). He goes on to talk about things like the “IBM Blue” and how it appeals to the kinds of audience that tend to be their customers.

    UBS (American Banking Company) shows a good example of giving an impression of a crest without the overt image of one.

    Nice Post.

    Jacob Gable’s last blog post..Dare Obasanjo’s 3 Laws of Platform Adoption: A DotNetNuke Perspective

  11. excellent list however I don’t agree a with all of them. But agree totally with wings, skulls and heraldry. (heraldry of which I have used in my last three designs 😀 )

  12. Jacob,

    I agree with you for the most part, but must point out that on the arrows, it seems to be counter-effective to say that:

    “they make you look where the arrow is pointing”

    … that this effect will ever wear out in design. In hundreds and hundreds of various landing pages tested, the team I work with has experienced the much overused arrow to be the single most effective element throughout. Though the others in your list are indeed trendy elements, the arrow surely will be in the effective designer’s toolbox for a long time to come.

    Bryan D. Hughes’s last blog post..Batman: RGB Color Friendly

  13. Thanks you very much !
    I like your blog. Good work

    Danh ba web 2.0’s last blog post..Top 5 Web 2.0 m?i nh?t dùng ?? l?u tr? d? li?u tr?c tuy?n mi?n phí

  14. Death to skulls, indeed. There’s 206 bones in the body — give them some exposure.

    Mike Wheaton’s last blog post..Which comes first, the database or the interface?

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  16. i agree with them all!!! how about adding ‘distressed/grunge anything’ i work at a t-shirt joint and it seems that every other design is distressed in some way or another. And every so often someone will come in and want a tribal design element incorporated in. Christ!!!

  17. I only agree of symbols being ‘overused’ on logos, using an arrow on a website isn’t ‘overusing’ the symbol – symbols are meant to communicate a message without any usage of letters or words.

    Mokokoma Mokhonoana’s last blog post..What would have made the ‘perfect’ Pick ‘n Pay logo redesign?

  18. As T shirt printers we see lots of hearts and skulls, and obviously have a bit of soft spot for them. My pet hate for an overused, or rather abused, symbol in graphic design is the green tick, vendors giving their own products a big green tick. As for arrows perhaps it is time we found a new directional symbol to go under the words this way and exit. Maybe the arrow has had its day.

    Steve Brown’s last blog post..Halftone Dots and Screenprinting

  19. A good point is made with this article, but the second sentence threw my guard up. What’s wrong with design trends? Many of us ebb and flow to pay the bills. The *ability* to follow design trends subconsciously shouldn’t be considered a bad thing in the professional sense. It’s all about how you utilize the skill.

    Valerie Foster’s last blog post..Inspired by Amelie #7

  20. You’re right, these are among some of the most annoyingly overused elements! And now that I think about it, just a few years ago, nike-like swooshes and swirls were all the rage and the whole “grunge” business hasn’t even started yet 🙂 Trends change fast these days, don’t they?

    RaShell’s last blog post..Boogie-Woogie-Doodles

  21. Gotta go with David… GoMedia was the first company that I thought of… especially with that Heraldry photo, and those arrows look like they’re straight out of an Arsenal pack.. but they’re a six figure kinda company, so all shall bow before them. LOL.

    I AM very sick of seeing the skylines, though. Not even an actual replica.. just a bunch of silhouettes.

    Erika’s last blog post..Miami Web Design

  22. How true this is. Hearts are everywhere. People need to stop loving things.
    Start downloading and buying some dingbats. You can create and render some very good logos and icons using dingbats.

  23. Great list! I would also put the paint drops in there – but clients love them! 🙂

    Jamie Le Souef’s last blog post..Tip : Backing up a large MySQL Database (errno: 24)

  24. @Jacob
    I didnt mean it like that.
    I just found it humorous that GoMedia uses pretty much every single one of those weather thats where they came from or not. id say a big portion of their businesses is selling these things.

    didnt mean any offense to you or the post. just having a laugh.

  25. I am not really qualified yet to say – I know that those graphics are used too often and overused – but when I read Your article – I couldn’t actually agree more.

    But if I remember right – those overused elements are popular because they are good. And maybe most of the clients will be satisfied with those designs and there is no need to think about something different? Just remembered when there was a topic about – Does designer need their own style?

    Dainis Graveris’s last blog post..50 Awesome And Creative Business Cards

  26. Jaswinder,
    Of course these are just my personal opinions, everyone comes across different designs, especially as we are all from different parts of the world.

    Matthew,
    Use appropriately would the key words you wrote there.

    Bryan,
    Well that is what an arrow’s function is, to point you in a direction however I am not talking about the single straight arrow, more the stylised funky ones.

    Danh,
    Thank you.

    Zahira,
    As I said to Jaswinder everyone comes across different designs, especially as we are all from different parts of the world and it is true, you do find most of these elements in online vector packs. If only they had a “pefect match to client brief” vector pack every time.

    Mike,
    Haha, how about the one in the ear? The tiniest one we have!

    Esben,
    You don’t have to completely not use any of these elements, just use them appropriately.

    David,
    I don’t mean to bash anyone, these icons can be found on any stock related site, in fact only one image above is from GoMedia.

    Niobe,
    Yeah, the sunburst was the number one most overused element that I mentioned in the first post.

    Fahim,
    I only mentioned 7 elements and you are asking what else to use? There are literally millions of other options!

    Sacha,
    I know you were only joking but curves and straight lines don’t really fit into this list nor are they symbols and it would be a good argument: “used precisely because they are so popular and widespread.”

    Mokokoma,
    I think I should have said stylised arrows because I was not referring to the basic one arrow.

    Steve,
    Ahh the green tick, that was one of the other contenders. How about we had a squiggly stylised arrow underneath the exit sign?

    Kat,
    Yeah clouds are quite up there and birds, they were also other contenders.

    Jacob,
    A triangle the worst to use? I love the Mitsubishi logo, but I suppose that is also a diamond/

    Jarrod,
    Very nice post Jarrod, thanks for the link up!

    Rashell,
    Those swooshes are unfortunately still being used in logos today.

    Pete,
    Bravo!

    Erika,
    Well they are one of the leading providers of stock images, much like when you think of fast-food you think of McDonalds, it’s just natural.

    Rya,
    Grunge isn’t a symbol, more a style and it will be coming up in another post.

    Jamie,
    The paint drops were listed in my first post in this series.

  27. Hearts and wings are terribly overused and they remind me of teenie drawings… but regarding the rest: I like to use symbols, I love nonverbal communication, it gives the work a mysterious touch 🙂

  28. I do miss the round ‘teethed’ circle that every internet site wants to put somewhere. The list seems rather complete though.

    Ruud van Wijngaarden’s last blog post..Begrijpversneller

  29. This article is very true. You can’t find anything at stores these days without a skull on it or a crest on it. It’s really overused and waters down design and style. This trend is much like the Japanese Sun Ray design.

  30. For some reason, the first thing I’ve thought of when I’ve read “Top 7 Most Overused Icons” was.. famfamfam. That’s why I made it a point to create (or rather buy) custom icons for every new project.

    Cristiano’s last blog post..No more bullshit

  31. Hey Jacob! I like this series. It didn’t excite me at first, but I like how your taking a positive slant on things, rather than just a good/bad list. Quite original.

    Looks like a lot of the commenters above didn’t read your purpose statement to encourage people to use these effects in a manner that suits the design

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  33. I stumbled across this 6 part series. Very interesting, although I’m far removed from the creative industry. While reading this article I thought it could also be titled “6 Overused Icons, Shapes & Symbols in Trendy t-shirts” (The lightbulb doesn’t really fit)

  34. great list! my initial reaction was ‘what about stars!?’ see someone else agrees..

    But then again, stars are just so very cool. They like the ultimate ‘stock image’ – I mean it’s built into illustrator!

  35. Skulls! How true. If you want to appeal to the average suburban 12-year-old boy who’s just hitting his rebellious stage, then use skulls.

    What strikes me about many of the derisive comments here is that they’re being overly defensive about an icon or symbol they like to use. This list is meant to be helpful (and it is! thanks!) in helping us sidestep the common, the repetitious and trite.

    Strong art and design is fresh and unique. It comes from within, it’s not be copied from what you see around you (although that can inspire you). If you’re more interested in producing the familiar and safe, or following trends instead of setting them, do so by all means. But don’t grumble when your style is held up as hackneyed and not particularly original.

    Thanks again for the list!

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  37. It sounds more like you dislike a particular style rather than those elements themselves.

    All of those elements can be used tastefully to make a great design.

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  39. Great list! hell yea…i used every one of those babies…all the time…i realized a few months ago that i’d been overusin them….now i’m tryin to get back to the 80’s designs…u kno..bright colors, bad 3d and big text…..works for me….

  40. I agree with these! I see the same designs again and again. It seems I have seen that skull/wing/heraldy design everywhere. It gets irritating because it seems less like design art than it is.
    PS. neil put it right

  41. Why didnt circles and squares make the list? 😉

    Actually – Ive enjoyed these blog posts, so thanks!

  42. On the contrary, “Plan varies faster than change.” Even the most accurate plan may have accidents and maybe disturbed. It then became the excuse for those who are unwilling to make plans.
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