I will freely admit my bias towards icons upfront, I believe that just about every design can benefit from their use. What exactly is an icon you might ask? For design purposes, icons are simplistic representations of a concept. Take something big and grand, like the Earth, and reduce it down to a it’s most basic but identifiable depiction.
Icons have the ability to quickly and visually organize a group of information, like a photograph, except without all the emotional connotations.
The following are the reasons that I value icons as a design asset:
Icons Are Universal
Think of any sign in a public space (warning, caution, curves ahead, restroom gender) and you will see icons performing their most useful purpose – transferring information to everyone without words. Icons can span different languages and cultures effectively because they are not based on language, but rather visual syntax.
Icons Are Highly Customizable
Being simplistic in nature does not mean boring. In fact icons are like people, you can dress them just about any way to help reinforce your message. At their base, icons can be a single flat color, or you can add visual elements like color, depth, and other embellishments to make them 3D, glossy, rustic, or whatever would best reinforce the message.
Icons are Infinitely Scalable
Most icons start life as a vector (shape based on points and curves for high resolution at any size) illustrations because they need to available in a large variety of sizes to support operating systems (16 x 16, 32 x 32, 64 x64). Thus they have the ability to reproduce from print to online media without worrying about resolution or sizes.