image: Iconology in digital art

A brief note about this version

This version of the proposal was submitted in unit 2 of the MA in digital art (April 2005). It was revised from the previous version, with the deletion of a number of study areas that were not essential to the final presentation.


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MADA 2 essay paper. Title: Iconology in digital art

Author: Colin Eyre.
Created: 25.9.2004. Last modified: 9.4.2005
Rev. 2




  • Investigate how iconology is used in digital art, graphic design and within the media
  • Examine how different cultures interpret icons
  • Examine if icons can be used to help us gain a better understanding of narratives, ideas or complex information or open up new possibilities in the form of interactive narratives.

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The objective of my proposal is to explore how iconology can be effective in communicating ideas. Icons can be used to represent messages, complex data, beliefs and ideas in the digital arts, as well as in commercial and business communications. I want to explore how we interpret and interact with icons.

Webster's Online Dictionary defines iconology as:

n. 1. The discussion or description of portraiture or of representative images. Cf. Iconography.

Philip M Parker. 2004. Definition: ICONOLOGY.
Webster's online dictionary (The Rosetta edition).
Available from
[Accessed on 25 September 2004]

While Lexico's online dictionary defines iconology as:

Noun 1. iconology - The branch of art history that deals with the description, analysis, and interpretation of icons or iconic representations. 2004. Lexico Publishing Group, LLC.
Available from*&q=iconology
[Accessed on 25 September 2004]

In addition, Webster's also defines the related area of iconology as:

1. The study of representative art in general.
2. The art or representation by pictures or images; the description or study of portraiture or representation, as of persons; as, the Noun

Philip M. Parker. 2004. Definition: ICONOGRAPHY.
Webster's online dictionary (The Rosetta edition).
Available from
[Accessed on 25 September 2004]

I want to explore how we interpret the meaning of icons in terms of their use with narratives, navigation or prompts within a virtual or real space. I want to look at how icons developing in ancient cultures and how we now use and interpret them in digital art - can icons increase our awareness of an idea or do they impose a separate 'colouring' to an idea.

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The word icon is interpreted in many different ways. To some it is a pictogram; others may describe it as a navigational image on a web site, while the media use it to describe actors, authors, artists, musicians, or political world leaders. In a sense, the term icon has been so liberally used that its real meaning is blurred.

Example 1:

A variety of icons (shown below) used to represent a search or find function within a number of web sites.

image: examples of search icons

If the context is unclear or new to a viewer, then the meaning of the symbol may be unclear. In the example below the magnifying glass does not represent a find function, but signifies that the physical pixel size of an image may be increased.

image: Example of a magnifying glass icon

Do designers, digital artist and technology developers make sweeping assumptions regarding how people interpret their iconic representation?

I firmly believe at a time when people are bombarded with so much information, that iconology is a hugely untapped resource, in the digital arts, for helping people to grasp and understand complex tasks, concepts, and actions required by today's new media and digital interfaces. Digital artists, designers and information technologists would benefits greatly by understanding how iconology can enhance their work and communications.

Consider the scenario of a person who wakes up when a digital alarm clock goes off, microwaves cereal for breakfast, makes a call on a mobile phone, drives to work listening to a digital in-car stereo and using an in-car digital dashboard, then arrives at work to enter a security password into a door keypad. This person has already interacted with six digital interfaces before even starting up an office computer, logging into the company network, opening the company's MIS systems, checking emails and browsing the web. A good understanding and use of iconology enables this person to complete all of these tasks when a digital interface was met.

I propose to investigate how iconology is represented and interpreted in digital arts and the media. With the growth of the Internet into a recognised media channel it is now more relevant than ever that the designers and creators of icons are aware of the impact and limitations an icon can have.

I will examine the way iconology affects our understanding and reinforces cultural bias. I will investigate if iconology creates ambiguity or adds clarity to a message or concept.

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For my final paper and presentation I want to show how icons in digital art and society are interpreted and how that can help convey complex and useful concepts and messages. I also want to highlight a number of issues, misconceptions and assumptions surrounding iconology.

The main idea I want to establish is how digital artists, designers and information architects can use iconology to help others grasp and understand their work, messages, communication or concepts.

I want to present a multimedia presentation that will allow the viewer to explore a virtual space by using an icon-based interface. The presentation will consist of the following parts:

  1. 1. The results, and comments, gathered from an online survey and questionnaire
  2. A dynamic and interactive narrative
  3. Video content of people presenting their interpretation of icons
  4. Images that will challenge the viewer on their own ideas regarding what iconology is and what it represents

I will use icons gathered from ancient cultures and 21st century digital art within the presentation. Iconic navigation themes may be based on directional icons as well as opposites in nature, moods, colour or other abstracts. For example,

  • Left, right up or down
  • North, south east or west
  • Good, bad, fair or mean
  • Light, dark, empty or full

Image: example of final presentation
Fig 1. The example above illustrates an initial rough idea for the final presentation


Image: example of final presentation
Fig 2. View when viewer selects an icon link

The virtual space would include:

  • A dynamic storyline that allows any thread of the story to be accessed in any part of the presentation
  • Video content
  • Director content (featuring multimedia created specifically for the presentation as well as material developed during the 2 years of the course)
  • Flash content (as per the Director content above)
  • Iconic imagery collected during the course

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I will be using the Internet to employ a series of online polls and questionnaires to as wide a target audience as possible in order to gather data regarding the interpretation of icons.

A web site will be set up and the URL will be passed to immediate friends and associates who in turn will refer the site on to other international contacts. It is vital that the results will be based on the widest target as possible as one of my key aims is to examine how icons are understood in different cultures. If the people polled only contribute from a small or local area then the results will be too subjective. Hence the need to get as wide an audience of contributors as possible.

All data will be captured into an online SQL database and result will be mined for inclusion into my final paper and exhibition. The site will be developed using Flash, Dreamweaver, HTML, JavaScript, PHP and MySQl.

I also want to build a database of terms related to iconology. I plan to use the content of this database both in the web site and the final exhibition.

image: site map for the questionnaire web site

Fig 3. Flat site structure for the iconology web site

The initial site is planned to be small and concise with ongoing information being added to a development section. Participants will be asked to take part in an online test in their perception of different icons. There will be three separate test areas in total; the first will contain icons from ancient cultures, and 21st century.

The design will pull icons from various cultures and historic references.

image: Example screen from Iconology web site

Fig 4. The home page for my online iconology web site

The test page will need to be simple and clean in layout to avoid any confusion between the iconic elements being presented for the test and the site interface. The scenario I am proposing at this point is as follows:

  1. Participant starts with the 1st test area
  2. They will be presented with a series 8 or 10 icons in each area
  3. An icon will be presented at the top of each page
  4. Participants are asked to enter their interpretation of each icon into a text field
  5. The participant then clicks the 'Submit Answer' to send their selection and proceed to the next test page

NOTE: I have decided that the answers should not be pre-defined for the participants. Instead an open text box should be employed. I perceive a small number of people will need to be polled in a pre-launch feedback session to test any usability issues regarding the web site. I am also aware that this form of research (i.e. survey) will in itself not reveal the origins or cause of cultural/socio bias or preferences to certain icons.

image: Example questionnaire screen from Iconology web site

Fig 5. Suggested scenario for a sample test page from the online iconology web site

For my final exhibition I plan to use all questionnaire data captured in a multimedia installation. Viewers can partake in a real-time questionnaire as well as being challenged on various juxtaposed images and icons. I will also use the results of all web-based tests carried out to support my aim of examining if icons are universal in interpretation or affected by cultural bias.

I will include all the various iconic examples used in the online questionnaire within my final presentation.

I will set a number of key questions and video a broad number of people on their interpretation of icons. Their answers will be presented as digital video within the final presentation.

For the exhibition material I will use a number of design tools such as Photoshop, Flash, Freehand, Director, ProTools (for accompanying soundtrack), Premiere, Typographer and Illustrator to collect and present various iconic examples.

For the example below I will ask the viewer if icons can bias our perception of an image and can they project a value or concept over an image. This hopefully will open up the question; are icons neutral or do they project a bias and cloud or simplify our perceptions.

image: teaser image 1

Fig 6a. A sample image suggested for the final exhibition that combines an image and a swastika icon.

image: teaser image 2

Fig 6b. The same sample image is shown but this time the icon suggests a supporter for global disarmament.

If the images above indicate that icons can overtly bias our judgement and present a one-sided view, then can iconology in digital arts affect our perception in a positive or negative way. Is the designer or digital artist projecting his or her own values or can they remain neutral and let the viewer draw their own conclusions.

For the final multimedia presentation I plan to use Flash and Director to present all the content. However I will need to use additional programs to create the content, including Premiere (or Final Cut) to capture and edit video, ProTools to record, edit and format audio, a number of graphic tools (PhotoShop, Painter, Illustrator and Freehand) to create, edit and montage imagery and possibly some third party utilities to extend the functionality of Director or Flash (I may need to allow Director to talk to a SQL database to track all interactive questions to be tracked in real-time and allow for results to be presented too).

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For research I will be reading and referencing the works of various writers such as Carl Jung's writings on collective unconsciousness, and Man and his Myths, Salome Schmid-Isler's paper on the semiotic investigation of style and Iconology on the World Wide Web, W. J. T. Mitchell's book titled Iconology as well as Erwin Panofsky's Studies in Iconology many books concerning iconology in the arts. For digital media I will be examining the work of digital artists.

There are also a number of papers published in academic magazines (Digital Creativity, How Design for example) that discuss the uses and benefits of icons in education; especially where employed in teaching students with cognitive issues like dyslexia (defined as a learning disability characterized by reading difficulties that may also affect writing, spelling, or working with numbers).

I also plan to use a number of publications and online resources in my research. These will include:

  1. C.G. Jung. The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious. 1968. (2nd edition).
    Routledge, London. [ISBN: 0-415-05844-9]
  2. C.G. Jung. Man and his symbols. 1978.
    Picador, London. [ISBN: 0-330-25321-2]
  3. W.J.T. Mitchell. Iconology - image, text, ideology. 1986
    The University of Chicago Press. [ISBN: 0-226-53229-1]
  4. Erwin Panofsky. Studies in Iconology: Humanistic Themes in the Art. 1972
    [ISBN: 0-064-30025-0]
  5. Christian F. Feest. Native Arts of North America. 1992 (Updated edition)
    Thanes and Hudson, London. [ISBN: 0-500-20262-1]
  6. N.L. Thomas. Irish Symbols of 3500 BC. 1988
    Mercier Press. [ISBN: 0-85342-856-5]
  7. Ross Woodrow. January 1999. Iconography and iconology - image analysis.
    The University of Newcastle, Australia.
    Available from
    [Accessed 20 September 2004]
  8. Ross Woodrow. January 1999. Analysis of visual images.
    The University of Newcastle, Australia.
    Available from
    [Accessed 20 September 2004]
  9. Ian F. Verstegen. May 2004. Cognitive Iconology.
    Available from
    [Accessed 20 September 2004]
  10. Daniel Chandler. September 1995. Semiotics for Beginners.
    University of Wales, Aberystwyth
    Available from
    [Accessed 20 September 2004]
  11. West African Wisdom: Adinkra Symbols & Meanings
    Available from
    [Accessed February 2005]

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Risk assessment

For the final presentation the computer screen must be placed on a solid and secure table or pedestal to avoid falling or been tipped over. All cables required will need to be routed to the back of the presentation stand to avoid people tripping over and falling.

If a mouse is employed in the final presentation then it may be prone to being removed, so I may need to look at the option of using a touch screen to avoid this.

The room where the presentation is being placed will need to display all emergency exits clearly in case of a fire or other hazards.

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Research will continue from now until the middle of 2006.

The design and implementation of the questionnaire will be as follows:

  • Design of the web site to be completed by March 2005
  • The development of the online SQL database to be completed by June 2005 (this includes all testing of the database and the code procedures)
  • Initial usability testing of the site to be completed in May 2005
  • The launch of the web site will start in July 2005

Results from the web site questionnaire will be examined around May 2006 and these results will be used in the final presentation.

Gathering of examples of iconology has already begun and will continue till June 2006.

The design and implementation of content for the final presentation will be as follows:

  • Concepts for the structure of the presentation will begin in June 2005
  • Initial interface designs and navigation will start in July 2005
  • Writing of content for the presentation (including the video questionnaire) will start in July 2005
  • The initial working model of the presentation will start in July 2005 and be developed all the way through to may/June 2006 before the submission of the final presentation to Camberwell
  • Audio recording of soundtrack will start in early 2006 (initial composition themes and rough ideas will be outlined at the end of 2005)
  • Video questionnaires will be carried out from August 2005 through to March 2006
  • Peoples views and comments from the video questionnaire will be edited in a video application from April 2006
  • Design of the presentation stand/display will need to start in early 2006 to allow time for any fabrication
  • Installation of the presentation at Camberwell college will need to take place possibly a week in advance of the presentation date

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