The Icon Fallacy

Within the surging popularity of interactive design is a growing intrigue around the design of icons. They hold an indescribable charm in their ability to be so simple, yet communicate rich meaning. A camera icon today doesn’t just mean, “camera.” We take pictures in a connected world, and every picture we take has the potential to shape how others perceive us. The play button no longer plays professionally produced VHS tapes, they give us access to the inner thoughts and everyday lives of people all around the world. In interactive design, icons have become a gateway to rich experiences.

People often overestimate the icon’s ability to carry complex meanings

The outward simplicity of icons leads people to underestimate the skill it takes to select the right one. And due to the depth of the meanings they can signify, people often overestimate the icon’s ability to carry complex meanings. The danger of this is that teams can sink hours in e-mail exchanges and meetings trying to seek new, unrecognizable icons in an effort to keep up with increasingly complex messages.

Designers, especially those of you who have found your seat at the table, would do well to educate your stakeholders on two principles:

Stay Old-School

Icons work when they are familiar. That is why the most well-established icons are grounded in the physical or the natural: floppy disks, trash cans, cameras, folders, pencils, phones, etc. If you are trying to denote something abstract or complex, dumb it down and pick the single most important characteristic you would want to denote, and find a blunt icon for that characteristic. You don’t need a man running while holding a newspaper next to a clock to denote “current events” when simply a clock, bolt, or newspaper will do.

Let the experience do the work

Icons are meant to be question marks. Let the experience be the answer.

Rather than constructing a new icon to capture everything you want to say, pick a familiar symbol and let the experience do the work. People don’t “experience” icons by themselves, carefully studying them and soaking in its meaning. Their understanding is made complete by interacting with it. Icons are meant to be question marks. Let the experience be the answer.

When all else fails, sometimes it’s just better to spell things out. Icons are not meant to be hieroglyphics. They can be used to add visual texture, but don’t let your product be overrun with them.