August 6, 2015 // By Magenic
Pictographs (symbols which convey meaning through the representation of a physical object), have been used by humans to explain the world around them since the very beginnings of written language and art. To some, pictographs are only cave drawings and ancient languages, however, we interact with them every day in our homes, commuting to work, and on our devices. They are simply known now by another name – icons.
Humans have interacted with icons in some way for so long that they’ve become ingrained in our daily lives. It helps us quickly recognize content, decide what to do with it, and how to interact with it. These symbols have certainly evolved as humanity has, but they hold no less importance in the way we interact with the world around us.
Icons can even help us navigate in cultures where the language is completely foreign. Airports often display signage in multiple languages and rely on icons to reach those who do not speak the ones listed. Well done signage can help travelers find their way to important locations largely unassisted, reducing the load on information desks and airport employees. Luggage icons can help point the way to baggage claim while a plane taking off may point to departure gates.
Even with the English removed from the sign below, icons can give travelers a safe assumption that if they turn left they will find several types of transportation (trains, buses, taxis, boats, parking spots, and rental cars).
Since humanity as a whole responds well to the use of pictograms, it might be tempting to use them for everything! After all, it certainly doesn’t sound bad to make your content more accessible to your users. However, designers should use caution when considering icons to make sure it really is helpful to their user base.
Icons are best used for simple, easy to boil down ideas. They are also best recognized when the most common image is used. For instance, a use may instantly recognize the icon to the left, but may not understand.
It can be tempting as a designer to create custom icons to show off your applications unique style, and while it’s true that icons should match the style of the application they are in, they should also not depart too far from what users already expect. If users are expecting a camera icon like the one on the left, they may hunt specifically for that and miss your camera icon entirely, meaning that you’ve made your application more difficult for users to use.
In instances where complex concepts are present, it may be counterproductive to use an icon (The Nielson Norman Group suggests that if it takes you longer than 5 seconds to think up an icon for a concept, the concept may not be right for an icon at all). In these cases, it is better to use text alone or in conjunction with an icon.
In summary, icons can create a strong connection between applications and users, allowing them to quickly find and access content. However, they are not simply the ‘cherry on top’ to a design, and require the same amount of careful thought and effort as every other experience in an application. When used correctly icons can make a design intuitive, easy to use, and help with language barriers. However, incorrectly used or designed icons hinder users and complicate designs. It’s just as important to know when to use an icon as it is to know how to design an effective one. the more complex unique icon (which is just a side profile of a DSLR camera) to the right.
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