Friday, 9 December 2011

Signs of the times

A British motorway sign has just been added to the collection of the Design Museum in London. Road signs in the UK have been standardised for years now based on designs by Jock Kinneir and Margaret Calvert which included icons, colour schemes and type faces (called transport and motorway). There's a story about this on the BBC web site and it got me thinking about what we used to call normative icons. The idea, dating back to early graphical user interfaces, was that a simple button icon should clearly identify what the button does. As the advertisement/catchphrase says; it will do exactly what it says on the tin.

We are used to quite a few such icons still, even making their way from computer screens onto other devices such as mobile phones. There's the wastebasket, the piece of paper with a folded corner, the loudspeaker cone with waves of sound. Often they are called, or confused with, GUI widgets (depending on whether you consider a scroll bar an icon or a widget). Embellishments like drop-shadows and polished highlights may come and go, but some icons stay with us.

The key thing, the object all sublime, of such things is two fold: they transcend language and (with luck) culture, and they save space. Language sometimes doesn't cut it: I recall being told that Danish had no word to carry the meaning of eject (a floppy disc) so when the Mac user interface was translated in Danish the term put away had to be used. You see the word STOP on French road signs, presumably because arrettez-vouz is a bit long-winded. Some do say arrĂȘt but isn't this a noun rather than a command? The English is usefully ambiguous. However, pretty well all stop signs are the same shape and colour: octagonal and red. You notice that long before you read the words.

Computer screens, having grown larger and with more pixels as time went on, were lulling us into a false sense of security over our icons. The arrival of mobile devices brought the problem of designing icons back to its origins. Have a look at any web pages or mobile apps you use or design and think about how you use icons and how you use text labels in your navigation.

And remember the notorious Welsh road sign incident and always check with someone else.