Icons, Iconography and Iconology

Other day, I was revisiting Indology course book I been having on ancient Indian iconography(भारतीय मुर्तीशास्त्र-नी. पु. जोशी), I stumbled upon word iconology. All along I had heard of iconography. It also seemed it was used interchangeably. We have been using word icon all along, in the field of computers. I got curious and started to relate certain past event, to understand this better. Few years back when I was on my own, I had a customer coming in to us for work related to signages and related website. This customer was into making signages for industrial and other commercials use. During that work, we got lot of exposure to standardization which has gone into signages worldwide and what goes in making/creating of those signages(or icons), choices of forms, shapes, colors etc. I also had worked in the past, in the field of typography, in the computers. Letters and typefaces are also icons at the root.

This also lead me into thinking about how icons in computers(especially with the advent of GUI came into being such as Apple Macs or MS-Windows etc, which, of course, originated at Xerox. I have talked more about this in my blog series on history of computing as I have witnessed here) came into being. Now in the era of pervasive electronic devices, icons and their standardization has become even more important. Being into software field, I have been part of developing user interfaces for various softwares and applications over the years which also involved conceptualizing and developing icons. Now this has become more of a design process with specialized skills in visual arts. Icons(and BTW, emoticons) are also now become part of social media(aka Facebook, WhatsApp etc) culture also in a big way.

I had studied iconography as an subject during Indology course. This was specifically towards icons one can find in Hindu and even Buddhist work of art, objects of worship such as temples, frescos. There also one can find that icons had meaning and they are standardized in a sense. Use of icons and iconography, in the fields other than art is also prevalent in the society since ages. In ancient India, iconography developed in the religious and also spiritual field and it made many advancements.

So we saw till now signages, computer icons, and in general iconography how it developed in different cultures historically. Then what is iconology, one may ask. Oxford dictionary defines it as “The study of visual imagery and its symbolism and interpretation, especially in social or political terms”. So it is clear that iconology is more towards like under the hood and try to find meaning, the context of icons, especially, used in historical art, even in general modern art also. In the context of art, then it becomes activity more of appreciation of work of art by applying those principles. It is certainly interdisciplinary subject where human psychology, social conventions, cultural aspects aspects needs to be studies. It has dawned me now that when I was studying Hindu iconography as a subject in Indology, I also was touching aspects of iconology. A search on Wiki would tell you that Erwin Panofsky and others had started distinguishing iconology from iconography.

Iconology, at the same time, it is also set of guiding principles which contribute to design philosophy of designing new icons in various fields including technology. I am curious to understand from designers who are involved in designing new icons, for digital devices, signages, and other walks of life, how principles of iconology(rather what may be called as applied iconology) are applied, knowingly or unknowingly.



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