An icon for frustration

How does one develop an icon for frustration? I took the picture below years ago, at the moment my younger brother expressed extreme frustration with our older brother. Mike is very low functioning, autistic and nonverbal. It is not obvious if he even recognizes his own family.

Frustration with Mike


A silhouette of my younger brother’s hand is fairly indistinguishable from my icon for ‘stop’. That makes sense in a way: when one is frustrated, one wants to stop being frustrated. There is a difference. The desire to get something to stop, suggests an urgency, a need to protect.

A shrug of the shoulder or hands turned outward in a questioning way may indicate frustration. A person may describe frustration by saying, “I give up.” It may be that this ‘up-ness’, as indicated by extending the hands upwards, could encode the feeling of frustration.


I could modify my current ‘stop’ icon to resemble a traffic policeman’s extended hand meant to stop traffic, then the silhouette of a hand with all five digits extended as in the above photograph, would not be as easily confused with the icon for ‘stop’.

Can the ‘frustration’ icon stand by itself, or does it need to be paired with the object of frustration? In signage, the red circle with the diagonal slash represents the negation (No) of what is within the circle, as in (No) U-turn or (No) Smoking. This secondary element (red-slashed circle) is devoid of emotion, it is a linguistic trick (if I’m using the term properly). I would much rather think of an image that evokes the emotion of frustration. In the photograph above, the outstretched hand in combination with the expression on my younger brother’s face tells the story of frustration. I don’t know if it is obvious that the object of frustration is our brother Michael, as his back is turned.

Below is my practice sheet for the ‘frustration’ icon. In the second column from the left, I tried pairing the outstretched hand with elements of the facial expressions that accompanied it. The bottom set of icons in this column has relies too much on the facial expression and not enough on the gesture, to convey sadness and frustration (also, the angle of the hand icon is not quite right). In the next column to the right, I included the object of the frustration. I don’t think this conveyed much emotion.

The column to the far right is the modified ‘stop’ icon. I prefer the five-digit hand as opposed to the side view. The side view of the hand looks too much like a foot, to me.

Practice icons including those for 'frustration' and for 'stop'

‘Frustration’ Icons and Modified Stop’ Icon
4″x10″ 140# Cold Pressed Watercolor Block

And the winner is:

I decided that for now, the frustration icon will consist of the hand gesture plus part of the face – the eyebrows and closed eyelids.  I just don’t think that the hand is enough. Perhaps it is cheating to introduce a facial expression. I need to keep thinking about this. I hope to come up with something better.

Set of icons representing frustration

Frustration Icon Set
5″x7″ 140# Hot Pressed Watercolor Block

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