Our Toolbar Icons Have Become Outdated

Our toolbar icons have become dated.

Many of Apple’s iOS fans have, for several years, bemoaned the use of skeumorphism in the design of Apple’s iOS (and even Mac OS) applications. “Skeumorphism” refers to the use of real-world interface elements in a decorative sense. The stated goal of the approach is to make people feel familiar with something by providing visual cues to the real world: wooden rulers, “torn pages” on a calendar, and so on. iOS 7 was notable for abandoning the approach in favor of a flatter, more iconic design.

But the fact is that nearly every OS has relied, to a degree, on skeumorphism. Many common icons come straight from the real world – and they’re becoming increasingly less relevant.

For example, could any young person be excused for not knowing why the “save” button is a picture of a floppy disk? Didn’t we stop using those in 1998 or something?

How long can mail applications identify themselves by using an envelope icon? My ten-year-old niece doesn’t see many paper envelopes – to her, a mail address is something with an @ sign.

What’s a good icon set for copy and paste functions? Should we even be calling it “copy and paste?” The days of cutting out actual clip art, and pasting it onto a board, is straight from the 1950s. “Clipboard” doesn’t even have any modern relevance. Maybe we should call it “copy” and “insert” instead?

Why does a magnifying class connote “search” functionality? Have you ever searched for something using a magnifying glass?

So many icons are driven from our analog world. But not all. For example, the “play,” “stop,” and “pause” icons may have originated on analog cassette decks, but those icons had no other connection to the real world. They were as arbitrary on their first use as they are today, which is why they still work. Sure, you have to learn that the little right-pointing-triangle means “play,” but once you do, you’re good to go. That seems easier than explaining why an icon of scissors means “copy that text into an invisible portion of memory, and then delete it from the screen.”

Volume icons are typically meant to resemble a style of analog audio speaker that hasn’t existed since the 1970s. Wouldn’t an ear be better? Ears seem unlikely to change anytime soon, and an ear icon is pretty easy to understand.

As you look around the things in your IT world, and wonder why your users sometimes don’t “get it,” ask yourself if things are really as obvious, at first glance, as you might thing. Maybe a re-think is needed.

2 thoughts on “Our Toolbar Icons Have Become Outdated

  1. Btil Entrails

    Did you listen to Andy Rooney much as a kid growing up? If Andy had lived and worked in the IT realm, What I just read, it would have been an Andy Rooney video clip on 60 Minutes. Re-read the last 3 paragraphs and tell me if you do not see and maybe hear him reading those 3 paragraphs. Good post, Don… Keep them coming.

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