April 05, 2006 - by jason

I have a huge amount of respect for designers like our very own Bryan Bell who can create a great icon that really communicates well inside a tiny 16–20px area, but let’s be honest, there’s a lot of awful, useless icons out there.

Icons can be wonderful things. The mind can respond really well to visual cues and symbolism, so a really good icon can help you find something in an interface really fast. A color, a shape, relative position or some other characteristic sets this particular icon apart from everything else on the page and when you need it, you can find it without really thinking about it.

A bunch of icons can also brighten up a dull interface, generally take up less room and provide that eye candy that clients and management seem to love. Hooray for the icon!

But an icon can’t solve everything.

New or infrequent users of an interface need to be able to absorb the controls and options fast – they’re not recognising icons, they’re deciphering them, so unless the icon follows a completely obvious or ubiquitous pattern (like a trash can for deleting something, or a plus sign for adding something, or a little house for “home”, or a magnifying glass for searching) you really need words as well.

Call me a minimalist, call me boring and practical, whatever, but sometimes the best way to say something is with a word.


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