EDITORIAL: Are we using the right icons?

It’s not as easy as you think to get your point across in pictures. The modern science of iconography goes back to the early 20th century when modernists tried to create an international language of pictures. The most well known examples are the AIGA symbols for public spaces, which are used worldwide to show you everything from the location of the restroom to the place you can check your coat. The problem is, as universal as those symbols seemed when they were first designed, they carry with them a cultural context that has quickly become outdated. Take, for example…

You know what it means, but think about it.. how many ladies wear skirts as a matter of habit? What if you were in Scotland… would the icon still make sense? This icon is just loaded with cultural context, and for that reason it’s been replaced in some places with even more obscure icons. For example, California ladies’ rooms are required to show a large circle, while mens’ rooms show a downward pointing triangle. (Get your minds out of the gutter, the shapes aren’t supposed to represent anything.)

While it’s hard to imagine that the era of the modern smartphone has only been with us for seven years, it’s already spawned numerous icons that make absolutely no sense unless you understand the cultural context. The icon for e-mail is innocuous enough, and to be truthful most of us still get “snail mail.” So, making the icon a little envelope makes sense. What about the icon for settings? It’s either a gear or a series of old-fashioned sliding switches. Does that make a lot of sense?

Or, take for example the record icon, which looks like the image above, perhaps sans a bit of the mid-2000s shininess. Does that look like a microphone to you? If so, you understand that before most of us were born, microphones looked like this:

Even so, you’ve probably never seen one in person. The overwhelming number of microphones you’ve seen look like little holes, that’s all there is too them.

Today, in 2014, there’s still enough cultural context that people are able to understand why their electronic devices have pictograms of gears, envelopes, old microphones, and sliding switches. What happens in 2024? 2034? Pictograms are far from universal, as the people in charge of storing nuclear waste have discovered. How do you tell people 20,000 years from now that digging in the ground is hazardous? Luckily user interface designers only have to worry about the near term future.