bad icons

Chances are, if you are a normal person, you’ve spent less than 60 seconds of your entire life ever thinking about icons. However, they have a big impact on how we navigate our digital world. Yesterday, I posted a twitter about the de facto save icon:

Why are we still using floppy disks as a save icon? I bet over 50% of todays computer users have never even seen a floppy disk.

That’s just a drop in the bucket of common icon issues.

Icons all have some correlation to a computer functionality that happens as a result of “clicking” them, but the imagery behind the icons can often come from vastly different places. For instance, it is not uncommon to see a toolbar with save disk, email envelope, and undo circular arrow icons. The save disk is a literal icon, albeit a relic from the past. You save a digital file on a disk. The envelope draws on the analogy between email and sending real physical mail. And the undo icon is fully abstract.

We’re now in the unfortunate place where these icons have become strongly associated with their meaning as a result of time, and even if someone could come up with strong set of icons drawing on consistent analogues across these common functions people would be very slow to adopt them.

What instigated this post is two icons I see everyday which frustrate me the most. They’re both on my iPhone.

One of them is the YouTube icon. This looks like a 1950’s television. Not only does 50’s TV have little in common with the digital clips hosted on YouTube, but what’s worse is that YouTube already has a powerful logo. Not that it’s a great logo, but it’s there. It’s such a strong part of popular culture it’s very difficult for my brain to re-associate YouTube with this old TV set icon. Even with the YouTube icon in the same place on my phone, it takes me longer to find than any other icon.

The other is the Photos icon. I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that less than 0.1% of humans have ever taken a picture of a sunflower. I would also wager that of those who have, sunflowers didn’t become instantly linked to photography in their mind. This is probably one of the weakest icons I’ve ever seen in over two decades of computing. Usually I click the Camera icon accidentally when looking for my photos, and fortunately I can access the pictures I’ve taken through the camera anyway.

Can you think of any icons that could use a makeover?

April 15, 2009 at 11:48 am

for the youtube icon

i bet the desiner fell inlove with the relationship between the rounded rectangle shape of the 50’s TV with the rounded rectangle iphone icon format.

andrew chiu, April 17, 2009 at 2:23 pm

fell in love with it so much and wouldn’t let go.

andrew chiu, April 17, 2009 at 2:24 pm

It’s true we all have different views, but icons such as these are made specifically to have appeal and meaning to many potential iPhone users.

Chuck, May 12, 2009 at 9:15 am

@skoda on @technochocolate on