Icon see clearly now

posted on 29th Jan 2019 by Caitriona Butler

We use icons in an attempt to universally represent meaning. On websites and in real life, icons are often used in place of or in addition to text.

But what happens when the item on which an icon is based is no longer recognisable to a younger cohort of website users? Does the antiquity of the original object make the icon less relevant? Or has the visual representation of the icon become such a part of mainstream understanding that it continues to be understood long after the real life item has been relegated to obscurity?

Looking at the following, I feel that in this case, the ubiquity of the icons has helped give them a universal level of understanding.

On the other hand there are some icons that are so generic that they could be illustrating anything. Their symbolic representation has been so simplified that they become at best, hard to interpret and at worst, meaningless. Without accompanying text a user will struggle to understand what they represent.

For icons like these, surely an accompanying text label becomes a necessity. The usability expert Bruce Tognazzini is credited with the phrase “a word is worth a thousand pictures.” If icons like these are being used, it is definitely worth keeping that phrase in mind.

Caitriona Butler, Web Developer.
Caitriona can usually be found crafting robust and effective responsive web sites across a range of programming languages & technologies at Neworld; a branding, creative and web design & development agency based in Dublin.