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.)



Leave a comment


  1. G M Barlean

     /  March 28, 2014

    I’m kind of fond of the smiley face! 🙂 Wondering how you feel about text speak like LOL or BRB? I’m not a big fan.

    • The smiley face. Yes, that’s a good one. At least as good as any of my examples. It’s meaning is more an emotional context than anything verbal, though you could say it means “I’m smiling at you.” The meanings of icons are really never completely unambiguous.

      Text speak is very much an insider code. You just have to learn the meanings as if it were a foreign language. (I ask my sons.) Given the limited space in a text message, it has its place. Unfortunately it can also be used to exclude or mystify, and I don’t like that because I stand for clarity and communication. I’ve heard of some people trying to write novels in the stuff and to me that’s just a gimmick.

      • G M Barlean

         /  March 28, 2014

        Agreed. I completely see the purpose of it when texting. Limited space. But when in regular conversation people way, LOL, or on FaceBook or in emails I get a ROFLMAO… I cringe.

  2. Honestly, I guess I’ve never given it much thought. I’ll pay more attention now when I’m working on a Word document!

    • The latest version of Word (2013), which I ended up with because I bought a new computer, seems to me to be retreating a little from the use of icons in some places. (Maybe it’s just wishful thinking on my part.) I seem to be very text-oriented when I scan for things and tend to overlook icons. That’s probably why I dislike them so much!

      • I’m fully using Scrivener now (took a recent online course reviewing the software which was wonderful). I was just working on my manuscript in the program, and I thought of you as I clicked the various icons!

  3. Oh, you are singing my song! When given the chance, in any computer program, I will opt for text-only or text+icons. And I can tell you that I don’t learn the icons very well because my eye only “sees” the words (in fact I did a post a while back on why I have a hard time reading graphic novels–my eyes have a hard time focusing on pictures when there’s text around).

    As you point out, we live in an increasingly visually oriented world, and there are times when using full words isn’t practical. However, there are challenges. I’ll bet developers of the hundreds of smart phone apps each believe the logo/icon for their app is perfectly clear and memorable. As the user, however, I have a devil of a time distinguishing among the various configurations of colorful squiggles, and am happy that most of the applications appear alongside text of their names written out, albeit in teeny-tiny type.

  4. faithanncolburn

     /  March 31, 2014

    I guess I haven’t thought a lot about icons, but I feel pretty comfortable with the twitter, wordpress, blogspot, facebook, google icons. Again, they don’t take any space at all, but you know pretty much where you’re going.

    • I was thinking of icons as little pictures of something that were trying to represent a meaning. The Twitter logo is a little bird that could “twitter” – so that one clearly qualifies. I guess any logo can function as an icon in the sense that it’s a highly recognizable image that is associated with a meaning – even if it’s not really a picture of anything (like the WordPress W).

  5. I’m still using Office 2010, but my husband purchased 2013 through his company for a ridiculously low price. It’s, of course, designed to “work” with Windows 8, which is a disaster in my book. So I’m not surprised that Office 2013 is also taking some backward steps. I’m not a huge fan of icons because with degrees in Anthropology, I know just how UN-universal so many aspects of human culture are. Even in this “wired” world of global connections, there’s often more confusion than ever about the meaning of a word, image, or action.

    • Oh yeah. The meaning of anything is cultural. A person can get into all kinds of trouble by making assumptions.

      I never saw Word 2010, having gone directly from 2007 to 2013 – and not by choice. I made the mistake of buying a new computer and had both Word 2013 and Windows 8 inflicted on me. I am slowly, slowly, learning to cope with the change. I am not loving it. If you think of a program’s interface as being like a single huge communication icon, Microsoft just changed the language – again. They really don’t seem to understand that language doesn’t work without continuity.


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