Icons in Presentations

Monday, January 31st, 2011 4 comments

icons-in-presentationsThere are many different methods of presenting, some more successful than others. Bullet points don’t work. Neither does including a large, beautiful image on a slide. What does work however, is visualisation. But it can be difficult to portray certain ideas without the use of text. So how do presentation designers overcome this issue? By using icons.

What is an icon?

An icon is a small pictogram or symbol, used as a visual representation of an object or concept. Icons developed with computer graphic systems, as a way of enabling the user to easily navigate through a range of actions, without requiring text explanations. Now, icons are often used in graphical work as symbols, to demonstrate an idea or ‘thing’ in an easy-to-understand way.

Why should you use icons?

Icons reduce cognitive load, by simply demonstrating a concept that audiences can grasp without difficulty. The brain instantly recognises and understands the symbol, which means that the audience can focus on the presenter, or on the way the icon is interacting with other objects on the slide.

So what does this mean for presenters? It means that audiences can focus their attention on understanding your concepts and explanations, rather than working out what your visual represents, and why you’ve chosen to use it.

Icons are successful because they promote relevancy. With the absence of extraneous detail, they tell the story, without distracting the audience.


Icons are extremely common in everyday use. The print icon and the telephone icon are self-explanatory, and the light bulb has come to symbolise a new idea.

There are certain icons that are seen time and again in presentations, and ones that we at m62 use frequently. The very fact that they are used so often helps to aid comprehension, as it makes them recognisable to a wider audience.

The handshake

icon-handshakeThis icon has received criticism for becoming almost a cliché – but this is undeserved. Whilst this may not be the most exciting visual in the world, it has come to represent a deal or partnership – helping audience members to visualise the outcome. Using an icon to represent this, rather than a photograph, helps to avoid any diversity issues, which some organisations could be sensitive about.

The information bubble

icon-infoThis icon is seen frequently in real-life situations around the UK, and has proved just as useful in presentations. Representing information or data is done easily by this icon, and can make many a slide much simpler. However, a word of warning – not all international audiences will be familiar with this as a symbol, so it may require explanation. See Icons and Visual Cognitive Dissonance below.

The warning triangle

icon-hazardAgain, this symbol is extremely useful for demonstrating a range of concepts. The possibility of litigation; a high cost; potential loss of business – the possibilities are endless. Emphasising anything that may prove a cause for concern is all done by a simple icon, which will immediately get the audience’s attention.

Icons and Visual Cognitive Dissonance

If an audience has not come across the icon before, this does not mean that it won’t work. In fact, having to explain an icon to your audience the first time you reveal it can be the perfect opportunity to incorporate Visual Cognitive Dissonance into your presentation. If they don’t understand your icon, they will look to you for an explanation – leaving them fully engaged with you and your content.


This is not an excuse to use ClipArt. Icons should be an integral part of the slide message, and become part of the visualisation. ClipArt is frequently used incorrectly, and often leaves an unprofessional dint on a designed slide. Avoid ClipArt: if you would like to use icons, you’d be better off creating your own.

How should icons be used?


Simplicity is the key. While an icon should be well designed, its function is to convey the concept, without confusion. For this reason, silhouettes often work well.

Icons should be instantly and almost universally recognised. If you audience doesn’t understand it immediately, they should be able to understand what the icon is being used for in context, or grasp the idea without difficult after an explanation. This enables audiences to stop focusing on what the icon means, and rather on how it interacts with the rest of the slide.

Icons work best with animation, on visualised slides. Here are some examples of icons at work:

To see what m62 Founder Nicholas Oulton has to say on the subject, read his blogpost on Presentation Iconography at killerpresentations.com.

Icons can really transform your presentation and step your visualisation up a level. Try giving them a go today – download our free icon giveaway for some pre-designed icons that could really help you make your presentations more effective.

These icons are available to website subscribers only. Sign-up to m62.net (it’s free!) to download.

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4 Comments to Icons in Presentations

  1. #1


    12:56 pm, August 30th, 2011

    muchas gracias porla ayuda prestada

  2. #2

    Jessica Pyne

    10:25 am, August 31st, 2011

    You’re welcome – glad you found it useful.

  3. #3


    7:29 pm, February 9th, 2012

    I downloaded the icons. How do I add these to PowerPoint?

  4. #4

    Jessica Pyne

    1:14 pm, February 14th, 2012

    Hi David, the easiest way is to simply copy and paste them onto your slides in PowerPoint! Have the downloaded file open as well as the file you are working on, select the icon you wish to use, and hit Ctrl+C. Then open up the slide you wish to paste the icon on and press Ctrl+V. You may find that the icon appears distorted or the colours have changed – click on the small ‘Paste Options’ icon that appears just below and to the right of the object you have just pasted, and select ‘Keep Source Formatting’. The icon should then revert back to the original design, and you are free to move, resize and animate as you see fit!