User interface design and icons

Icons and user interface design are practically inseparable. Icons convey meaning, can cross language barriers, help establish brands, give products and devices a contemporary look and feel, and make for easy touch targets. Their creation and use, however, can still be full of missteps and confusion.

The absence of a standard for icons can make their use more problematic. For example, there are very few “universal” icons which immediately convey a singular meaning to the majority of people. Icons such as “Home” and “Print” are among those considered universal in meaning. By contrast, icons such the star icon and the heart icon can can confuse users as to whether or not they hold the same meaning. If the feature, function or action the icon represents is not immediately conveyed to the user, the icon is reduced to confusing graphical eye candy and visual noise that gets in the way of task completion.

The process of creating icons involves approaching them from all angles. Icon theme investigation can  help in generating symbolism that is unique to a product and company. Color selection can promote, or in some cases obscure, the icon’s meaning. This is especially true for medical devices where specific colors may convey specific meanings and should not be used for icons. Additionally, determining whether to use high or low fidelity icons has a significant effect on the appearance of the user interface and product as a whole. The old saying of good icons should be able to be drawn in the sand with a stick may not hold true anymore as skeuomorphic icons became popular. Although the trend has been a return to flatter, lower fidelity icons it hasn’t eliminated photo-realistic iconography from the UI equation. Also, the decision to use labels for icons affects the location and layout of the user interface. Labels for icons is rarely a bad idea as it eliminates confusion. However, one of the benefits of icons is that they can be space savers while still remaining large enough touch targets on touchscreens. Adding labels means taking up more space per icon.

Icon generation requires attention to detail and a thorough investigation of symbols, themes, styles and colors. It also requires validation through usability testing. They may appear simple, but successful icon creation involves a knowledgeable multi-angled approach.

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Posted in 2018