The Longevity of Icons – A Picture is Worth More Than One Word

One of my biggest issues with iOS7 is that Apple is fairly inconsistent with the use of iconography vs. text. Take the email app, for example. If you swipe left in the listing view, it gives you options using text like “Trash”. But in other instances (like looking at a specific message), there is a trash can icon. Even though it didn’t need to use icons for screen real-estate purposes, iOS6 used icons more often and more consistently. Icons transcend language and makes translating an app into a different language a much easier endeavour. I have always admired LEGO instructions since they never need translation. Why can’t software be the same?
Icons are much more powerful than using words. Some people’s associations with icons are so strong, that even after the obsolescence of the item the icon is depicting, the icon persists. What icon do you click to save a document in Word? A diskette. When was the last time you used a 3.5″ floppy disk? My kids, the oldest of whom is 8, all know that’s what you click to save but they have never seen a diskette in their lives (and may never). 
There are other examples of this:
  • An alarm clock icon with bells (when was the last time your alarm “rang”?).
  • Camera icons tend to show an SLR with a large lens, which makes up a small minority of cameras. In iOS6, Apple had an icon of a cell phone camera lens, only to change it back to an SLR in iOS7. Users’ association with these images are powerful. 
  • Most icons for phones shows an old school handset. With the exception of an office phone, when was the last time you used a corded handset?
  • Videos also tend to show a frame of film with the treads on the side of the celluloid. Very few films these days are shot on film, and even fewer are watched on film projectors (reminds me of high school). 
  • People still say “I’m taping the show” when they haven’t used a VCR in decades. 
  • Trash can icons are the old, metal, ribbed cans. Oscar the Grouch is the only one still using that type of can.
  • Even recently, a number of print icons showed the treads for the dot-matrix continuous feed paper. 
  • The word “post” which is used for blogging these days started with bulletin board systems (BBSes) in the 1980s. BBSes were the precursor to the Internet. The word “post” was used like a posting on a bulletin board- you write something brief, and you tack it up on the board. 
  • The triangle play button, parallel lines for pause, two triangles for fast forward and rewind were from tape recording devices. 
  • I am sure many others that you have seen.
My favorite icon of all time was in the old IDE/programming language Powerbuilder. Instead of a play button to execute a program, it was an icon of a bloodied battle axe. The next version of Powerbuilder, it was replaced, but I always appreciated that sense of humor. 
The point here is that as you consider a user design, use more icons than words. Your software will be more usable, you’ll save screen real estate, and you won’t need to translate it into different languages. 

Copyright © 2014 Jason Heltzer