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The power of icons

Icons are all around us, they speak to us, and yet we tend to take them for granted. But imagine what would happen if someone removed all the roadsigns overnight or a series of black squares suddenly replaced all the icons on your washing machine. Dreadful, eh?

Icons are so ingrained in our daily lives that we would be completely lost without them. Icons grant us easier, safer and more effective interaction with the environment and are a precious resource.

Indeed, icons are such a powerful communication tool that in the early 1980s a task force comprising engineers, anthropologists, nuclear physicists, and behavioural scientists was convened by the U.S. Department of Energy and Bechtel Corporation with the aim of creating universally-intelligible signs to prevent future humans from unintentionally intruding on radioactive waste isolation systems. The task force decided that, since it can’t be assumed that future generations will speak the same languages, efforts must concentrate on producing self-explanatory images that could be interpreted correctly by anyone at any time.

A brief history

But what exactly are icons? Simply put, an icon is an image that represents an object, action or idea. The peculiarity of icons is that they convey meaning in a more straightforward and easy-to-process way than a sequence of words would. For example, the yellow sign depicting a substance leaking onto a holed hand and surface acts as a more direct, easy-to-grasp warning than a textual sign that reads “Mind you that in this area there are dangerous substances that may severely damage or corrode your skin or any surface”.

Of course, the use of images to communicate is nothing new. Stone Age artists used to paint meaningful images on the walls of their caves some 20,000 years ago. Since then, images have always accompanied societies and starting from the early 1980s they also took over virtual environments. In fact, even though we can’t even image computers without computer icons (how would we go about opening programmes, selecting fonts or even turning off our device?), they really are a recent acquisition. It was in the 1970s that Xerox developed the first Graphical User Interface (GUI) but, since it was applied to a very expensive computer, it remained a niche endeavour. Ten years later, icons made their way into the Xerox Star, the first ever commercial personal computer but it was thanks to PhD Susan Kare’s design work on the Apple Macintosh that a long-lasting visual vocabulary was finally established. Some of the icons that were designed back in the 1980s have remained unchanged despite originating from objects that do no longer exist, sometimes to the bewilderment of younger generations. Think of the ‘save’ icon portraying an object that could be nowadays labelled as a historical find, i.e. a floppy disk.

The advantages of using icons

Yet, the fact that pictures are easier to remember compared to words is very well documented in the literature. Standing et al. tested image memorability by showing subjects as many as 1,560 pictures over a 4-day period. When their memory was tested on a subset of the studied pictures, the subjects reached 90% accuracy in their recognition of the studied pictures in their original orientation or in reverse orientation. This so-called picture superiority effect in memory holds true not only for complex pictures but also for simple object line drawings (e.g. Durso & O’Sullivan).

In the case of app icons, when memorability is associated with aesthetics, icons can make or break the success of an application. Indeed, Jylhä & Hamari showed that the way an app is visually represented greatly contributes to the amount of attention it receives and to its consequent commercial performance. Consumers seem to be more likely to interact (i.e. click, download, purchase) with app icons that are aesthetically pleasing and convey good quality, particularly those that are perceived as unique, realistic and stimulating.

But icons can also be successfully utilised to complement or organise texts. With their ability to capture attention, they can bring structure to a text by creating convenient visual anchors that break up a page and make it more legible and attractive. Indeed, icons are better search targets than words, which comes in handy when writing and organising a long document.

Legibility is also enhanced by colour. Yeh et al. measured the EEG response to icons presented on a visual display terminal and discovered that color combinations with high preference had better legibility than those with low preference. In fact, subjects had a faster response time and greater attention when exposed to preferred coloured icons.

The use of high-quality coloured icons can improve our interaction with the virtual environment and positively impact productivity.

At Presago, we take issues connected with productivity seriously. This is why we have created Icons for Confluence, a plugin that offers a wide range of customisable icons that help you organise the content of your Confluence pages and increase legibility.



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