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Creating an iconic

March 16, 2017

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Digital Team

We’ve talked a lot about the new look and feel of — we even made our brand guidelines public. Today, we’re diving into a small but important aspect of the new site: our icons.

Admittedly, we were a bit all over the place on the old site with our icons. Instead of one cohesive voice, we let departments do their own thing, and it made for a weird experience. Without consistency, it was confusing to try to figure out if the information you were getting actually came from the City of Boston.

Sample of icons used on

With the new, we stepped up our game. You’ll find close to 300 custom icons across the site, including on department pages and on our homepage. Even with these tiny icons, we made sure to stick to our strategic principles. We want to look warm but official, creating an environment that makes you want to click around and explore our site.

Through icons, we’re able to communicate meaning across languages. Along with helping you navigate the site, our icons also add a bit of personality to

Experiential icons

Sample of experiential icons used on

One of the main types of icons you’ll run across on are “experiential” icons. These bold line icons are used for specific actions a citizen may want to take, like paying a parking ticket or registering to vote.

Experiential icons also give us a chance to add a little humor and a personal touch to our work. They are built using three-pixel width strokes and usually (but not always) have hard edges.

Department icons

Sample of department icons used on

As part of the rebranding of, we gave departments their own icons for the site. You can see each of these “departmental” icons on our department directory. These icons are meant to indicate deeper content, or may just point you to a specific department page. They are in no way meant to replace current departmental marks and logos. They are a wayfinding tool for people to see which department created a piece of content on

These icons are simpler and made of solid shapes so that they can easily be recognized by a repeat user. They are filled with Charles River Blue and given a bold underline with Freedom Trail Red. Wondering just what “Freedom Trail Red” and “Charles River Blue” mean? Learn more about our colors.

Other icons on

Social media icons

A sample of social media icons used on

Even our social media icons have changed on the new site. We didn’t want to water down the City’s brand with the brands of social media companies, so we created social media icons in line with our brand guidelines. These icons have a circular stroke around their edges, and a solid icon in the center.

Small, circular icons

Sample of other icons used on

You’ll also find small, circular icons on our place profiles, but really, they can be used wherever they're needed. For these inline icons, we are using a similar style to our social media icons. They are surrounded by a three pixel circle and filled with Charles River Blue. They’re used to describe the features of a place. You can see great examples of inline icons in the sidebars of the Boston Centers for Youth & Family community center pages (scroll a bit down the page). 

An icon case study

A icon with Trinity Church as a model
Picking Trinity Church

The inspiration for icons comes from a lot of places. For the Landmarks Commission icon above, our team first researched landmarks around the City. We pulled from pinterest, google image searches, and our own knowledge. We quickly settled on Trinity Church in Copley Square as the basis for our design. Why Trinity? With a project like, it’s helpful to design one icon for multiple uses. We chose Trinity because, aside from Landmarks, it could represent churches, public spaces, old buildings, and more.

Beyond language

We also felt that Trinity would be easily recognized by non-English speakers. More than 140 languages are spoken in Boston. About 34% of residents in the City speak another language. This, of course, doesn’t count the many tourists who visit Boston each year. Icons like Trinity Church attract the eye but also give a person a general sense of what information they’re going to. This helps us — in a small way — break down language barriers on

Testing, testing...

What’s the best way to test anything? Put it out in the world and see what people say. When our team showed this icon to members of the public, they quickly identified what it was, and what it could represent. At that point, we knew we had a winner. During the launch of, we created close to 300 icons in just a few months. Despite that tight deadline, we still tested our icons with actual people to make sure we weren’t designing in a vacuum.

Icons might not seem like a big deal, but they are an easy aspect of a site to get wrong. We plan to grow and expand our icons over time as we add new content and topics to the site. By using icons with a similar look and feel, we hope to cut out the confusion, and surprise and delight you with our style decisions.

The ultimate goal is for you to enjoy your time on, and to feel like you’re using a website built by humans, for humans.