Icon Not Even Right Now
A UX Reflection on icons and how those sneaky bastards get away with being whatever they want!
In today’s UX Reflection we dive into icons. I stumbled upon these adorable animal kingdom icons and immediately understood each and every one. An icon by definition should accomplish just that.
Merriam-Webster has several definitions so I’ll pick the one that proves my point because as the author of this piece, I can do that.
icon n. “a sign (such as a word or graphic symbol) whose form suggests its meaning.”
I think that we would all define an icon in a similar way, and we assume as much is true. We interact with icons so frequently that we rarely question them. The assumption being that if they were so bad, they wouldn’t work. Right?
Well, I’m here to tell you, we would all be wrong. On a daily basis, we are surrounded by icons that are only that because we have decided to give them a meaning.
Allow me to show you what I mean. I did a lap around my house, collecting photos of icons, and scaring my cat. This is what I came up with (filtered down to the best of the best of course.)
I know what you’re thinking. Too easy.
House is on a cliff.
Bubble popper. (Sorry that one’s a bit dark and dusty, it was from the neighbor's house, not my pristine house.)
But in all seriousness. Each one of these icons today does their job. They’re an icon that each of us can recognize and we don’t question it. But for the hell of it, let’s dig deeper.
This one may be my favorite of the group. This icon is for delivery. And when I see it printed on the side of my grocery bags I don’t question it. But do you know why I don’t question it? Because a few inches away is a car icon, and that one is the icon for curbside, so yeah, duh, this one HAS to be for delivery. Because the groceries are delivered… to my home. It’s actually pretty smooth.
This next icon should be getting an invitation from Letterman because it needs no introduction. It was first created in 1970 as part of a design competition sponsored by The Container Corporation of America and now exists in the public domain as a universal recycling symbol. I found at least 10 examples of it in as many minutes just around my home.
With our understanding of recycling, we can easily follow that this Mobius strip of arrows chasing each other around, is indicating an item is part of a cycle of remanufacturing.
This next one is more common, but not the only bunny icon on the block. This icon has a darker history. It was created in response to the practice of testing beauty and household products on rabbits, among other animals.
The explanation that made sense to scientists at the time?
According to the American Anti-Vivisection Society, the reason they were so commonly used in experiments was that “[Cute little bunnies] are small and usually docile, easily restrained, cheap to maintain, and breed prodigiously.”
It was a terrible practice. It’s unfortunate that this icon even has to exist. But it is now a cute and fluffy reminder that it’s possible to create beauty products without harming animals in the process.
This next one may not be as familiar unless you’re frequently around power tools, which I am not. I ventured into the garage to find this one. It’s letting you know that if you use this product, you should use protective eyewear.
Or you may lose an eye.
Another example where having some context makes it a no-brainer. If I’m going to use something with “gun” in the name, I should probably protect my softer bits, even if it’s only shooting 3/4" staples.
This last one is a fun one because it not only spans the gap between being not obvious without explanation, but we’ve taken it an extra step by giving it a new-ish meaning. Ask anyone and they’ll tell you this is the power symbol. I’ll challenge you to find five examples of this in your home right now.
Go ahead, I’ll wait the 30 seconds.
You may be surprised to learn that this symbol actually indicates standby. The circle is broken, but the line is not completely inside the circle, which indicates that the device can be turned off without completely disconnecting the power supply.
Whaaat? All this time. I mean, it makes perfect sense, but I didn’t know.
And that’s what’s great about it. I interact with this icon on a daily basis, and I’m able to accomplish what I need to because it is clear. At least clear enough.
So, whether it’s your favorite celebrity or the power button. There are icons out there that are so just because we say so. When it comes to creating an icon for design, or personal use (I don’t know your life), be bold and be consistent.
And then plaster it everywhere you can! If people see it enough, they’ll eventually come around.