I'm Aza Raskin @aza. I make shiny things. I simplify.

I'm VP at Jawbone, focusing on health.

 

The End of an Icon

Given our open redesign of the Ubiquity logo, I thought it would be apropos reprint a post from the past about an icon that had reached the end of its life.

Finding the right graphic for an icon is hard — and even if you do find a decently descriptive graphic, it might not be descriptive for long.

For the majority of cases, trying to represent an abstract idea like “bibliography” in a 32-by-32 pixel array is futile, even if you do have millions of colors and an alpha channel. Sure, you might choose a book with a magnifying glass as your icon, but that graphic could mean many things: “library”, “help”, “research”, “index”, “vision impaired”, etc. Any interface that uses the icon would still have to add a tooltip to explain what it means. There is a reason why we have words — it’s so that we can specify one thing in particular no matter how complex or abstract the thought.

Why make the user go spelunking for the information they need? Just give it to them.

It came to my attention recently just how fragile the connections are between the iconal representation of a concept and the actual concept. Here is the Microsoft Word icon for “to save”.

Word's icon for save, which is a floppy disk.

It’s a floppy disk. There is only a tenuous connection between saving and a floppy disk even for those of us who know what a floppy is (and at the moment most of us remember them), but floppy disks are on their way to becoming as unknown as Charles Yerkes. Don’t know who I’m talking about? That’s my point.

Floppy disks were a stepping-stone medium — once ubiquitous, they have given way to larger, faster, and more convenient forms of storage. Soon, nobody is going to remember floppies, except for those of us re-living the good old days when we used to replace their magnetic sheets with sandpaper as a practical joke. When the new generation of users takes over, they’ll have no idea of what a floppy is, and the icon will have lost all meaning.

It’s dangerous to base a visual analogy on a moving target. Technology will change. What’s clear and obvious today won’t be in 10 years; so what’s nebulous today will be totally obscure in 10 years. The problem with the floppy icon (beyond the iffy analogy) is the generation gap. For icons, there are many other gaps — like the culture gap — to contend with.

A Japanese Persimmon

For example, does the above image connote anything to you? Can you even tell what it is? In northern Japan, the persimmon is the symbol of autumn.

The next time you are struggling with an icon, try using words. Otherwise, your icon might just be going the way of the floppy.

If you are interested, you can read the old post’s comment thread.

RT @aza The End of an Icon | Follow @aza on Twitter | All blog posts

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Relevant comment from Andrew Plotkin a while ago about icons (http://www.eblong.com/zarf/osx-log.html):

The problem is the distinction — and the original Apple human-interface guidelines make this distinction very clearly — between icons representing objects (files, directories) and icons representing actions (buttons, menu items).

A group of objects is something you come across now and again. You want to find a particular one, perhaps. They have text labels, which are sufficient, but you also want a rough visual categorization. You want to distinguish the folders from the files, or the image files from the text files. The iconic shapes are a first cut, a way to trim down the information rush, so that you can more easily pick out the one you want. The icons are acting to make some objects more similar to each other.

A group of commands is different. Every command is different. Therefore, every command needs a different icon. So where is the similarity? There is none; you are not visually grouping all the hearts together, you are trying to remember what the heart stands for. And that’s the wrong task. The point was never to associate important information with a picture, it was to associate pictures with each other.


Words I will surely link to from the bugzilla in future :) Thanks Aza.



Sascha

Hi Aza,

a guy from Mainz, Germany, is creating PICOL, a Pictorial Communication Language. Not exactly what Ubiquity is all about, but definitly worth to seize. In his post “What the hack is a floppy disk?” (http://blog.picol.org/what-the-heck-is-a-floppy-disk/) he is looking for an alternative to the good old floppy disk. Also worth to see is thesis, a movie about the history of the internet (http://blog.picol.org/history-internet/).

Greetz from the river Rhine
Sascha


The other day I was talking about that very floppy icon with a fellow student, to make the point you’re making (though not as well put).

Some time later, looking at all those even shinier icons on the Mac, I was wondering: could the continuation of this trend lead to some sort of “prototypical” icons do not necessarily communicate their meaning through an unambiguous real-world reference but end up ‘overriding’ it.

Their visual mark become the primary association of the idea they intended to represent, referring to nothing but itself in the end, like a simulacrum in the sense of Jean Baudrillard’s hyperrealism.

You know, sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Use it often enough and it will become what it should embody.

Or like any word whose meaning has been transformed over the centuries so that current usage has nothing to do with the original reference, but we learn their meaning per definition, by brute force.

Btw, something off-topic. Why isn’t the nifty live comment preview you have on the Humanized blog here?



Juan Lanus

Another evolving icon is the telephone, with that round input device for entering the numbers with a finger or a pencil. What was a “pencil”?
Or, what about “pulling the chain” in the toilet?


The disk icon represented “saving” exceptionally well when it was created. It still represents “saving” exceptionally well due to historical continuity.

Language (both verbal and visual) is littered with exactly this kind of process — where an apt neologism transforms into a disconnected symbol we understand instinctively. I doubt many people would know or worry about the etymology of “Hello”. In fact, much of English is built on languages that most English-speakers aren’t even familiar with.

It would be a shame to lose these living fossils with an interesting back-story to time-proof but often bland and abstract symbolism. “Back” and “Forward” are universal, but they certainly aren’t interesting.


@Sascha Thanks for the links. Very interesting.

@Stuart: The original research that got people started with icons was that icons are more quickly found than text for between 8-12 icons that are visually highly distinct, placed randomly.

@Jakub, @Andreas: :)

@Yu-chung: An interest thought. The live preview isn’t around because I haven’t had much time to work on the backend of my blog.


Yeah, I totally get what you are saying, but doesn’t this conflict just a tiny bit with:

http://www.azarask.in/blog/post/design-review-ep-2/

Designing for discoverability rather than usability?

I mean, the icon can change can’t it? And if things were design for the discoverability to usability transition wouldn’t that be safe?

This is not quite a good example, but sort of makes my point: why doesn’t say Word actually start for the first few times with some kind of key beneath the tool bar that has “floppy=save, folder=open folder” kind of instructions. And after a few opens of Word or a few uses of the icons, you can expect your users to have memory of the icons, and you hide away the key.

I love words too. But I’m always on the fence. Should the interface really be primarily words or should they be icons and words with words disappearing after successful discovery of what icons mean?



Feco

I just hit Ctrl+S :)


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Words I will surely link to from the bugzilla in future :) Thanks Aza.


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