Blog: Secrets from the Chef

What icons are for

Yegor GilyovAuthor: Yegor Gilyov
6 November 2008

What icons are for You would not believe it but in 1985 Apple asserted an idea in its developers’ guide to replace text messages with icons wherever possible. As though icons would be more clear to a novice user than words. Of course this is bollocks. It is much easier to express any idea in words.

So, unless you are designing an interface for a graphics editor, a picture is worth a thousand words as the saying goes.

What icons are forLower 6 icons clearly display the results of using the respective tools.

Such approach is also applicable in CAD/CAM and architectural software as well as other WYSIWYG-based interfaces. But how often do we, humble GUI designers from Samara, engage in such projects? I confess, not really often. The truth is that in the modern digital world we more often deal with things without any visual incarnation at all.

Real-life example: “Forming document” icon for a legal software package. It describes a document that contains a reference to another document to be replaced with a newer edition by making such and such changes. Great, is it not? It is hard to describe it even in a full-size sentence. And it is even harder to grasp at once. Perhaps a visual aid such as the chart below can help understanding this concept:

What icons are for

But placing it on a small icon and making it understandable for a novice user? It’s riduculous.

If we admit that in most cases it is easier to describe a concept than to display it, why would we even bother using these icons? Maybe for the sake of saving space? Indeed, toolbar icons are 16×16 pixels. Descriptions are usually larger. However, I personally do not want to believe that by drawing icons I simply help placing 100 unnecessary and useless commands on a screen space otherwise suitable for just 10 (without my involvement). Besides, let’s take a look at the contemporary interfaces of MS Office 2007 and Windows Explorer.

What icons are forWe can see that almost every icon is followed by inscription. So we are not talking about space-saving practice here.

So why, for instance, the interface of MS Outlook is literally spangled with icons?

What icons are for

We are not talking about any visual images here, no space-saving is spotted here either (almost every icon is followed by text). In order to uncover this enigma let’s imaging that our sight is slightly out of focus.

What icons are for

Oh, hell! We can no longer read any of the labels. At the same time, the icons are notably distinguishable in most cases. What is that black cross? A black cross will always be a black cross for deleting mail. The red flag and colored boxes on “categories” icons are still visible, so that an experienced Outlook user will not get lost.

Does that mean that the only useful function of icons is to help users with dull sight? In fact, no. But this example demonstrates that an icon unlike text can have properties for locating it on the screen. These properties are shape and color. Text messages are not different from each other by shape or color. To distinguish one message from another you need to read it. In the event with icons, you need just a quick glance.

What icons are for

Besides, pictures are better memorized. During one experiment people were shown 2500 slides. Then the same group was shown coupled slides and asked which slide they already saw, and almost in every case they gave the correct answer. And even when they were shown 32 slides in a row, almost all the members of the group could spot the single slide that was not previously demonstrated. What does it tell us? People are good at remembering pictures. An icon can successfully serve as a visual anchor for any function in a user’s head.

Having identified the purposes of icons, we now can easily answer the question about what is important about the icon business and what’s not. Perhaps you have already guessed that the most important thing about icons is distinctiveness. It was on purpose that my colleague Denis Kortunov made insufficient distinctiveness the number one item in his “10 mistakes in icon design” article. Indistinguishable icons simply do not work, they merely occupy screen space: one cannot easily find them on the screen and they cannot serve as a visual anchor. At the same time such property as “purpose clarity” is not nearly as important, although it may sound somewhat resonating.

Moreover, the pursuit of “clarity” through sacrificing distinctiveness can only do harm. One of the most ridiculous goals that an icon designer can put before himself is to make icons without text understandable by a novice user. We always try dissuading our clients who consider this goal important and reachable. I hope I was convincing enough for you, as well as for the audience of my short report at 404 web developers’ festival. You read above an illustrated story of it. Thank you for your attention!

What icons are forPhotographer: Ignatiev Igor

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