Companion icons are simple graphic symbols placed next to a textual element (e.g. headings, subheadings, paragraphs to represent the meaning or function of the text they accompany and signal where to find a specific piece of information.
The first impression that many contracts give is that of an impenetrable wall of text. When people expect that the reading experience will be effortful, chances are that they will give up reading almost immediately.
For those who go ahead and read, the wall of text (especially combined with considerable document length) makes it hard for to read strategically, making it hard for readers to identify key points and find answers to specific questions quickly and easily.
Any time you want to provide visual salience to the different sections of the document, while crafting a graphical overview for the reader – if this fits the overall tone of voice of the document.
Icons act as visual cues, capturing readers’ attention. This way, readers can search, identify, and memorize relevant information more quickly.
Moreover, when the same icons are used consistently throughout one or more documents (or “nested” within other visuals, highlights or in a table of content), their meaning becomes familiar, so readers can identify recurrent topics and terms at a glance.
As a note of caution, icons should always be accompanied by a textual explanation or label (hence they are “companions”), since they are not generally self-explanatory and users might be unfamiliar with them. Icons in contracts are often highly symbolic and metaphoric, as they may refer to abstract concepts and terms. The risk of “unlabelled icons” is lower if the icons belong to a shared, standard visual vocabulary (e.g. the Creative Commons licenses icons have become a de facto standard.)
© 2019 Stefania Passera, Helena Haapio, Rossana Ducato, and Arianna Rossi. Published with permission.