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April 29, 2008

Icon World

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Before the first Macintosh went on sale in 1984, I don't think I'd ever heard the word "icon" used to describe a stick-figure "graphical" visual before. Come to think of it, I don't think I'd ever heard the word "graphical" before either. But all of a sudden it seemed that everyone had an opinion about "graphical interfaces."

Here's a shot of the original Mac 128k screen:


It seemed a like foreign (if appealing) universe. Outlines? Impersonal lines? Hyper-simplification? Pictographs? It seemed more like ancient Egypt than modern America. In America circa 1980 you might occasionally run across schematic drawings by engineers and architects:


Those male and female outline-drawings that pointed you to men's and women's toilets were a staple of international airports.


But -- strange though it can seem today -- the arrival of pictographs seemed pretty damned exotic. The world simply hadn't been heavily decorated and punctuated with hyper-simplified symbolic line images.

These days, by contrast, it can seem as though icons (like tags) aren't just everywhere, they're a defining characteristic of modernity. What's a button, or a screen, or even a thought, without its own icon?

I'm OK with this in a general sense, not that my opinion should matter. Eye-candy? -- I often like it, especially when the eye-candy serves a usability purpose as well as a delight purpose.

I'm reminded that, back in the early '80s, I knew a writer who was struggling unsuccessfully with adapting to computers. Publications were demanding that writing be delivered in computer form, and -- as brilliant as he genuinely was -- the poor guy simply didn't have a computer-compatible brain. The screens presented by early-'80s PCs (green letters on black) put him off. File systems baffled him, and having to memorize basic computer commands ... It all made him just about weep with frustration.

I don't mock this, by the way. People who don't happen to have brains that synch up well with computers are at a serious disadvantage these days.

Come to think of it, one of the biggest changes I've witnessed in my lifetime is the development of a general expectation that everyone should be able to manage computers. It's a strange expectation, when you think of it. I work in an arty-media field, for example, yet it's all now based on computers. How bizarre that English majors -- English majors!! -- are expected to be competent with computers. Hey, IT people: There are perfectly decent and intelligent people out here whose brains just don't do the computer thing very well. Yet here we are today, nearly all of us spending our professional days serving the great computer god.

There are moments when it all seems like nothing more than a naked power-grab by the geek class, doesn't it?

Anyway, as of 1983 my writer-friend was in despair. His brain just didn't -- and really couldn't -- work the command-line way. Then, in 1984, he bought a Mac, and his problem was solved overnight.

Although my friend was nothing if not a verbal guy, the visualness of the Mac -- the way you interacted with the machine's innards via reaching and grabbing, and the way the screen offered cute pix of what you were faced with -- made using a computer a snap for him. Drag this picture of a file over this picture of a folder, let go, and you've managed to put your file in a folder. Easy! Here my friend was, a verbal guy who was liberated to participate in basic computer activities by Apple's smart use of visuals.

Still, all that said and acknowledged ... Well, the whole icon thing can get a little overdone these days, can't it? The Wife and I rented a Taurus not long ago, for instance. Here's one buttony / knobby thingy that I found myself looking at:


I get it generally: This is the "headlights" knob. But what do the specific icons represent? The icon in the top-right seems to mean "bright." OK. But why is the word "auto" at 12:00 accompanied by two Sputniks colliding? Why is there a picture of a Life Saver candy in the top-left? That thing at 6:00? Why is it telling me that I'm standing in a closet with a lightbulb overhead? And what to make of the contact lens in the very center? It looks to me as though it just farted.

Another cluster of icons I faced:


OK, top one: Open the trunk. But the bottom one? As far as I can tell, if I press it my tires will explode. And that middle space (apologies for macro focus problems) is, as far as I'm concerned, a very strange place to put a Rorschach test.

Put an entire cockpit full of buttons, knobs, and icons together, and here's what the landscape looks like:


That's a lot of not-self-evidently-obvious labeling. Is a thicket of indecipherable icons really preferable to what we knew before?

And don't get me started about what it's like trying to decode the icons that show up on many digicam screens. Can you remember what dozens of different icons mean? I certainly can't. One reason that I've used cheapo Kodak digicams for a while now is that Kodak tends to do a good job of including not just the usual fun flurry of icons but of including words -- actual plain-English words too, and not tech-speak words -- that explain what these icons mean. That micro-pic of a palm tree that shows up when I press that one button? My Kodak goes to the trouble of explaining not just that it's a "Beach" setting, but that I might want to "Use for bright beach scene." Nice! Earth to designers: Here's one case where a few words of explanation really are appreciated.

When it comes to buttons, knobs, and commands, why are designers so dogmatic about avoiding words these days?

How do you react to the omnipresence of icons in today's world? As I say, I enjoy visual peppiness, and I like the way that visuals are so much a presence in our lives these days. Although I like reading and writing a lot, words have certainly dominated other forms of communication for 'way too long. It's long past time for the other media to share some of the power, IMHO. Still: Do we have to go so very far overboard?

Here's the website of Susan Kare, who designed many of the original Mac icons, including the immortal Trash Can. Could Susan Kare be one of the most important and underrecognized artists of our era? Here's an informative article about her. I wonder what she'd make of those Taurus icons that so baffled me.



posted by Michael at April 29, 2008


In some ways our brains seem to work very differently, and yet I respond with the same confusion to the auto icons you describe. I too have no idea what "TC" with a slash through it could possibly mean. But if we are both confused, it tells me the icon designers could do better and be clearer. Just like you've discussed academicians who use dense incomprehensible English language, it seems like some icon designers are using the equivalent of dense incomprehensible language in icons. Someone should start a "bad writin'" award for icons. One trick I've learned when I rent a car is I don't let the salesman go until I know how to open the gas tank, turn on the lights, turn on the A/C, and start and stop the windshield wipers, since I figure I can do most of what I am going to need if I at least know that. It's like once I rented a PT Cruiser, and the up-and-down thing for the windows is actually on the dash, not on the door handle. I didn't know this until I was on the highway, and had a few wierd minutes feeling trapped in this car with electric windows but no buttons!!!!

Posted by: annette on April 29, 2008 3:22 PM

One big reason for the prevalence of icons is globalization. Companies ship their parts all over the world, and it's much more efficient (read: cheaper) to come up with vaguely universal icons supposedly understandable by all people regardless of language, rather than making language-specific parts. IKEA is either the master or the bigeest perpetrator, depending on your perspective, of this phenomenon. Their instructional guides for putting together a piece of furniture are almost entirely icons.

btw, that farting light thing in the middle of the first picture is supposed to represent fog lights.

Posted by: JV on April 29, 2008 3:27 PM

The 6:00 icon on your light switch is for the overhead dome light, I think.
For icons gone crazy, check out this video short

Posted by: Julie Brook on April 29, 2008 4:05 PM

Not sure what the TC stands for, but I rented a car recently and the icon with it when lit meant tire pressure problems, usually low. Had to look it up in the book though....

Posted by: gavin on April 29, 2008 6:32 PM

If it makes you feel better, Mike, a lot of the geek class doesn't do the social thing awful well, which hurts us even more.

Posted by: SFG on April 29, 2008 7:01 PM

The one at the centre of the TC stuff looks a frickin' embryo (or zygote!). The other thing is, what, another zygote? Or is that a gamete? And what is the thing that made you think you were in a closet with a lightbulb over your head doing next to the two, uh, things? And why is it tilted?

Maybe it's some subliminal political mindf*ck. And speaking of
icons, how about the hieroglyphics on the 567,687 buttons on each my 114,908, 056 remotes?

(I remember a film where Carl Jung made IMO a fool of himself by interpreting three slashes painted on a rock as emblematic of snakes, abDOHmens, and god knows what else. I dunno...maybe Carl could be of assistance to us. Me in particular. I still haven't figured out how to turn on my TV.

Posted by: PatrickH on April 29, 2008 8:10 PM

The Mac mail program uses a folded paper airplane for the sent items folder. I noticed that the other day, pretty genius.

Posted by: James on April 30, 2008 2:19 AM

Since I spend some time designing icons and "intuitive" user interfaces, I'll give my short explanation of why these things so often are inscrutable.

Although nobody connected with any project will admit it, the inituitive-ness of the user interface is at the bottom of the list and has the least demand on the budget.

We never have time to really focus on the user interface. The other "substantive" parts of the project are usually so demanding that they absorb all of the money and time allocated to a project, leaving the intuitive-ness to fend for itself.

Think just about this blog. Postings pass by at a mind boggling pace. By the time I've absorbed one posting, it's already stale. And, it's on to the next.

Same's true for software and design projects. There's never enough time and money to do the job thoroughly.

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on April 30, 2008 9:19 AM


This is way OT, but how did you take those pics? Natural available light or did you use an off-camera flash? Except for the depth of field thing you mentioned, they look pretty nice.

I have been looking at the strobist site and trying out those off camera flash. This has led me to look at pictures more closely.

Posted by: JM on April 30, 2008 1:10 PM

Annette -- That's a really smart policy, demanding that the rental-car people explain how the damn controls work. I'm gonna start doing that myself. Actually one of the reasons we do our best to always rent Tauruses is that they're such standardized cars. Nothing fancy, nothing tricky. The visual symbols ain't much use, but the car generally is a snap to figure out. Put me in another make and model, and I'll be baffled for days.

JV -- Fog lights! That makes sense, I guess. I feel on the one hand like I should have guessed it. On the other I feel like I'm smart enough, and if I didn't get it it's the designer's fault. I think that's a very shrewd idea about the impact of globalization. Yet another reason to put some speedbumps in the way of the process, as far as I'm concerned.

Julie -- Overhead dome light! That seems plausible too. Weird to put it at the bottom of the dial, isn't it? It seems more like a symbol for "your shoes are being illuminated. That's a classic video, tks.

Gavin-- That's another category of icons, the ones that do make a kind of sense, but only after you've either looked 'em up in the manual or been told what they mean.

SFG -- So the rest of us should let the geeks take over, just because they were laughed at in high school? Hmm, come to think of it, *are* geeks laughed at in high school these days? Or does everyone know they might become billionaires? That's another huge cultural change -- the presence of the "the geek" (and the place of that creature) in the culture. Back in the day, we had a few weird math wizzes and a few guys who loved what passed for computers in those days (they all tended to wear the same pair of socks for weeks at a time). But they barely registered as a distinct class of people, and no one took them very seriously. Actually they were generally considered sad weirdos. Who knew they were about to conquer the world?

PatrickH -- A Jungian zygote! It's as good an interpretation as any other, god knows. Maybe better.

James -- The folded paper airplane is a nice one, isn't it? Maybe I should stop whining and start collecting examples of good ones ...

ST -- Thanks for the insights. Sad to learn that user-friendliness carries so little weight, even these days ...

JM -- I just twisted the dial on my $129 Kodak to the flower symbol (macrco), pushed the lens up close, snapped, and hoped for the best. No flash. I think the fact that it was sunny that day, but I was inside the car, helped a lot -- the light in the car was bright but diffuse. If I remember right you can't make the Kodak's flash go off if you're in Macro mode even if you want to. Cameras are cool, no? Are you having fun playing with the more advanced flash?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 30, 2008 2:33 PM

I had to think about it for a mniute, but I believe that TC icon refers to the Traction Control system. I can't tell from the picture if it's a button to turn it off, or a light indicating it's not functioning.

Posted by: mikesdak on April 30, 2008 3:24 PM

You did great with what you have! I have a Canon G5 which is 4 years old now, but makes a great strobist camera because it has a hot shoe for flash. I have a couple of very old film SLR (15+ yrs old) flashes that offer manual control and with those, you can take really nice pics if you buy this Ebay $40 wireless combo to trigger them remotely. Look at and for more info.

While the flashes themselves are advanced in features in that they allow for manual control of light output, the features themselves are very old. You have to put everything (camera and the flashes) in manual mode, have reflectors to diffuse the light, and with a willing subject (such as a car!), can take pictures with a lot of control. I find that I can take portraits with much better quality than your typical Sears portraits for next to no money at all. And yes, it is a lot of fun, though my kids don't think so. :)

Posted by: JM on April 30, 2008 4:15 PM

ST, your depiction of software development is right in line with my experience. I'm on the content/UI side of things, and that's always the last thing discussed and allocated for, particularly content. Our mantra to the developers is always "The whole point of software/a website is to deliver and/or manipulate CONTENT!" Sadly, it's not heard that often.

Posted by: JV on April 30, 2008 4:46 PM

Think of it as a Ravens PM.

Flynn in full effect.

Posted by: the_alpha_male on May 2, 2008 12:08 PM

When designing a computer user interface, all but the simplest icons work better when they're accompanied by a label or mouseover reminder text. The question is, is there a good way to achieve the same best-of-both-worlds effect with a car's instrument panel?

Posted by: Dog of Justice on May 4, 2008 6:42 PM

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