Icons have their place – it just isn’t everywhere

When is a picture not worth a thousand words?

When it’s an icon.
I just had (another) negative icon experience in Microsoft Word. At such times, when my ire is at its height, I tend to go off into long rants to the effect that the present proliferation of icons is threatening to return our civilization to the Stone Age, or at least to a time in history before the invention of writing — which I consider to be one of humankind’s greatest achievements. On this particular occasion, however, I was brought around to a slightly more balanced position by a serious conversation with my Millennial-generation son.

My son pointed out that he had grown up with icons and more or less takes them for granted. Some of them are pretty widely recognized and are used across different platforms. He also observed that they are not likely to go away any time soon. As he said, they have their place.
Yes, they do. They save space on the small screens of many electronic devices where it would be totally impractical to spell everything out in writing. They are not tied to a specific language, and so can potentially be more “universal” than written labels. On the other hand, this potential is limited by the fact that images have cultural context too. In fact, it’s pretty hard to come up with a universally understood icon.

Some of the better icons are:
The arrow, used to denote direction. This one probably goes back to the Stone Age. It’s practically a dinosaur. Since bows and arrows are not commonplace anymore, however, its meaning has become culturally determined to a large extent.
The skull and cross-bones, used to indicate a poison or other potentially deadly threat. It’s pretty hard to argue with this one, although I once read about a tribe somewhere that keeps the bones of ancestors lying around their houses. Skulls might have a rather different meaning to them.
The no (whatever) allowed symbol, by which I mean the red circle with the slanting line across it, superimposed on an image of whatever is meant to be disallowed. The meaning here derives from the fairly universal destructive gesture of crossing something out. Of course, the full meaning is dependent on the iconic quality of the picture of whatever is behind it.
The scissors to stand for the word “cut.” This is by far the clearest icon image to have come out of the computer age. The trouble with it is, you still have to know what “cut” means in the digital context, so it is language-dependent.

Maybe you can think of more or better examples.

Here’s the thing about images and icons: Not every image makes a good icon. To be good for this, the image has to be, well, iconic. That is, it needs to be visually simple, memorable, and endowed with relatively unambiguous meaning.
I’ll say it again. A good icon must be:
1. visually simple
2. memorable
3. endowed with relatively unambiguous meaning

That’s a tall order. Not very many images can live up to it, and an awful lot of the icons that are strewn willy-nilly across our computer screens fall woefully short. My son and I concluded that icons work best when they are widely used over long periods of time so that they come to have general instant recognition. We agreed that the practice of concocting novel icons to represent specialized functions in specific software applications is just plain wrong-headed. They have no generally-accepted meaning, and users expend effort to memorize them only to frequently have them disappear in the next incarnation of the program. They’re particularly useless when they aren’t even good icons based on the three criteria stated above – and most of them aren’t.
So this is for whoever it was at Microsoft who decided to substitute a totally un-memorable and not very descriptive icon for the “new style” button in Microsoft Word: You know who you are and you blew it! You failed the useful new icon creation test. (Cue sound of rude, annoying buzzer.)
So what do you think? Are there any icons you have come to know and love? Any you think should be relegated to icon hell?
(Take heed, oh ye Microsoft designers and programmers.)