The Clarity of Icons

In Michael Hughes’ blog post “A Picture is Worth…hmmmm”, he discusses the idea that icons are being overused to replace words. While small pictures can be a simple, aesthetically clean way to represent words, it is important that it is clear to the user what the icon actually means. When a document is filled with dozens of icons for different things, it can often be hard for users to tell them apart.

I have noticed this in many different websites, programs, and even machines. It seems that every few weeks my sister sends me a picture of a symbol that’s lit up on her car dashboard, asking what it means. With dozens of small icons to represent an abundance of different warnings and alerts, it can be very difficult for users to tell what a symbol is supposed to represent. In many cases it would be more effective to use words for simple messages such as “Low wiper fluid” or “Replace brake light”.

In Michael’s post he claims that it is good to use icons to “differentiate among broad categories”, however it is not a good practice to use icons to “differentiate among nuances within a category”. I think in most cases this is accurate, as icons can certainly be useful tools to make a document look much cleaner and more usable. They just need to be used in moderation, to avoid convoluting the information that is meant to be conveyed.

Trevor Green