Clinical trials explained: Why iconography matters…

October 19, 2023

How many times a day do we see, and use, icons?  

The answer to that question is likely to be lots, and probably more than we realise. Especially when we think about a ‘thumbs up’ or heart emoji in our favourite apps or on social media, road and tourist attraction signs that direct us when we’re travelling, websites when we’re tracking down information – the list goes on. The fact that they appear in so many different areas of our daily lives just go to show how useful they can be as an alternative form of communication.  

Icons as visual language

Iconography comes from the Greek words ‘eikon’, meaning image, and ‘graphe’, meaning to write. So, iconography is ‘image-writing’ (which as a description really does sum it up!).  

In today’s world, many icons are immediately recognisable — they’re used repeatedly across different industries and different products to represent the same actions and scenarios, thereby creating a universal language. For example, a simple ‘glyph’ icon such as those used for the weather forecast are instantly identifiable. More specific and detailed icons are also commonly used and tend to take the place of words to convey a more visually appealing design, and to help reader usability and understanding.

Which is why, in healthcare communications, the use of icons can be a fantastic addition. At Cuttsy+Cuttsy, we have lots of experience in developing support materials for clinical trials, which has meant we’ve spent a lot of time thinking about and developing icons, and how they can be used in the best possible way to elevate communications.

Icons in clinical trials

It can be daunting for patients when faced with the prospect of joining a clinical trial. Fear and a lack of understanding about what’s required of them are significant barriers to a patient agreeing to be involved. And even once they are recruited to a trial, it’s vital to provide them with information that they are able to easily understand and action to encourage their continued involvement.

When we’re creating materials for clinical trials, we explore if and how icons could be developed to make information more accessible for patients. When used appropriately, icons often work faster than words alone, and they can help to enhance health literacy and enable readers to navigate their way through detailed information more easily. Icons are particularly useful for visual learners, as well as people with reading difficulties or who struggle with comprehension. By facilitating the design of clear, easy-to-read page layouts, icons can also act as signposts to the important ‘need to knows’.  

But what makes a good icon?

In our experience, an effective icon is one that is simple and communicates its meaning to the reader quickly. When producing content for trial participants, we always consider positioning, consistency, and design. For example, the positioning of icons can support the flow of information being provided and encourage action if it’s necessary. Consistency and familiarity of icons can help to develop trust in a study — which is essential for patient onboarding and retention whilst icon design supports understanding and engagement, as well as being an additional way to reinforce your trial identity (have you seen our blog on branding your trial yet? Check it out here. It’s also key to consider the use of colour when thinking about how icons can be used. Read more about how colour plays an important role in eliciting an emotional response and the impact that this also has in relation to clinical trials by reading our blog on colour here.

We don’t know if health literacy was something the ancient Greeks understood, but their iconographic image-writing is certainly now vital to making health information more accessible!

So, if you’d like to know more about how iconography can elevate and support your clinical trial work, let’s talk.

You can read all our latest clinical trials explained blogs here.

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