25 Jun 2007
The End of an Icon
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”.
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.
The next time you are struggling with an icon, try using words. Otherwise, your icon might just be going the way of the floppy.
by Aza Raskin