Thursday, March 12, 2015

A word is worth a thousand pictures. (Bruce Tognazzini)

I’m assuming he was referring to icons in this case. And the thing that icons have going against them – at least when compared to the average picture – is their almost total lack of detail. Compare, for example, the Sistine Chapel ceiling with the hamburger icon (you know, that thing with three lines in the upper right corner of a lot of your apps). Heck, compare a printer icon with the hamburger icon.

I’ve noticed a real turn in the wrong direction relative to icons lately. To me, they seem to be getting more and more streamlined, causing users to have a harder and harder time interpreting them. They kind of remind me of acronyms in that way. Now, acronyms are an elegant, time-tested way to express a lot of meaning in a very small space. Unless, of course, you don’t know what they mean. And, then, acronyms become totally uninterpretable.

Now, I’m sure this move to icons is due primarily to how our screens have gotten smaller and smaller over time. That said, I am starting to wonder if this whole thing hasn’t taken on a life of its own.

In addition to giving us less space to play with, another thing the move to smaller screens has encouraged is a real reliance on graphic design. I attribute this in turn to the incredible success of Apple, who – of course – owes a lot of their success to their graphic design. Indeed, UI design in this day and age has often struck me as the era of the graphic designer.

One thing I’ve noticed about graphic designers over the years is that they really don’t like words. Now, I’m not all that fond of them either. In fact, I constantly remind the writers I work with that people don’t like to read. I sometimes, think, though, that graphic designers would be more than happy if there weren’t any words on their UIs. 

How else to explain what seem to be an almost visceral reaction against labels on their part? As an example … My company very early on adopted the hamburger icon – long before it had that much currency. Unsurprisingly, users struggled with it. My humble suggestion was to add a label. Boy, did that go over well.

So, here’s the thing with words and pictures ... We need both. If you’ve got an organization that favors one over the other, it’s like driving a two-horse cart with only one of the horses doing the work. Tends to make you run in circles. If nothing else, it sure ain’t very efficient.

Tog, with trademark suspenders

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