Reflection Point: Icons
Ever had anyone complain to you about how people only notice the things that haven’t been done? That people only notice when things go wrong?
It’s totally true.
Modern life is filled with millions of conveniences — products and services designed to help the user accomplish their tasks quicker, easier, and with less effort. Since they exist solely to ease processes and aid in tasks, we only really think about these conveniences when they fail — when they make life harder rather than easier.
Now, while symbols aren’t exactly a convenience, and certainly not modern, they play a big part in improving accessibility and usability. Symbols represent and convey ideas, creating universally acknowledged meanings that can be accessed by anyone with that knowledge. They’re also things we don’t really pay attention to until they don’t work.
Icons are, theoretically, easier to understand than symbols, because while symbols are arbitrary shapes that convey a learned meaning, icons are shapes that have a connection to the signified object they represent.
The operative word is “theoretically”: in theory, it should make icons easier to understand, but in practice, icons can be very confusing, as they don’t picture exactly what they represent. When there are no labels attached to the icons, the interpretation of the relationship between a picture and its meaning can get very fuzzy.
Case in point: Washing Icons
Every young person doing laundry on their own for the first time knows the struggle of trying to understand the infamous washing icons.
While their shapes are supposed to indicate their meanings, they’re nearly impossible to interpret correctly without a guide.
For example, see the photo “Washing cycle symbols” above. Even with the context of knowing they represent cycles, they’re not exactly intuitive.
The first one isn’t so hard — if you’re at all familiar with these kinds of symbols, you might guess that the first one means “machine wash.” Knowing that, the second one may not be too hard to figure out either — “hand wash.” The third seems pretty straightforward — “don’t wash.” But what about the fourth? If you’ve learned its meaning, you’ll know it means “dry clean only,” but would you ever guess that’s what it meant from its shape? And would you be able to figure out what the second and third icons meant without knowing the meaning of the first?
And the dryer icons aren’t any easier to interpret.
However, once learned, these icons are pretty helpful when you’re not sure how to clean your new sweater and the tags inside the sweater show you a circle with an X through it.
The bottom line is that while they’re not always that easy to figure out, symbols and icons are an invaluable alternative to language when it comes to communicating important information.
(Also, designing icons must not be an easy job.)