An illustrated history of digital iconography.
Thursday, November 24th, 2016
Monday, November 21st, 2016
Here you go: a free book on icon design in three parts, delivered via email.
Tuesday, January 19th, 2016
Hamburger, hamburger, hamburger
Andy’s been playing Devil’s Advocate again, defending the much-maligned hamburger button. Weirdly though, I think I’ve seen more blog posts, tweets, and presentations defending this supposed underdog than I’ve seen knocking it.
Take this presentation from Smashing Conference. It begins with a stirring call to arms. Designers of the web—cast off your old ways, dismiss your clichés, try new things, and discard lazy solutions! “Yes!”, I thought to myself, “this is a fantastic message.” But then the second half of the talk switches into a defence of the laziest, most clichéd, least thought-through old tropes of interface designs: carousels, parallax scrolling and inevitably, the hamburger icon.
But let’s not get into a binary argument of “good” vs. “bad” when it comes to using the hamburger icon. I think the question is more subtle than that. There are three issues that need to be addressed if we’re going to evaluate the effectiveness of using the hamburger icon:
- usage, and
An icon is a gateway to either some content or a specific action. The icon should provide a clear representation of the content or action that it leads to. Sometimes “clear” doesn’t have to literally mean that it’s representative: we use icons all the time that don’t actually represent the associated content or action (a 3.5 inch diskette for “save”, a house for the home page of a website, etc.). Cultural factors play a large part here. Unless the icon is a very literal pictorial representation, it’s unlikely that any icon can be considered truly universal.
If a hamburger icon is used as the gateway to a list of items, then it’s fairly representative. It’s a bit more abstract than an actual list of menu items stacked one on top of the other, but if you squint just right, you can see how “three stacked horizontal lines” could represent “a number of stacked menu items.”
If, on the other hand, a hamburger icon is used as the gateway to, say, a grid of options, then it isn’t representative at all. A miniaturised grid—looking like a window—would be a more representative option.
So in trying to answer the question “Does the hamburger icon succeed at being representative?”, the answer—as ever—is “it depends.” If it’s used as a scaled-down version of the thing its representing, it works. If it’s used as a catch-all icon to represent “a bunch of stuff” (as is all too common these days), then it works less well.
Which brings us to…
Much of the criticism of the hamburger icon isn’t actually about the icon itself, it’s about how it’s used. Too many designers are using it as an opportunity to de-clutter their interface by putting everything behind the icon. This succeeds in de-cluttering the interface in the same way that a child putting all their messy crap in the cupboard succeeds in cleaning their room.
It’s a tricky situation though. On small screens especially, there just isn’t room to display all possible actions. But the solution is not to display none instead. The solution is to prioritise. Which actions need to be visible? Which actions can afford to be squirrelled away behind an icon? A designer is supposed to answer those questions (using research, testing, good taste, experience, or whatever other tools are at their disposal).
All too often, the hamburger icon is used as an excuse to shirk that work. It’s treated as a “get out of jail free” card for designing small-screen interfaces.
To be clear: this usage—or misusage—has nothing to do with the actual icon itself. The fact that the icon is three stacked lines is fairly irrelevant on this point. The reason why the three stacked lines are so often used is that there’s a belief that this icon will be commonly understood.
That brings us to last and most important point:
By far the most important factor in whether an icon—any icon—will be understood is whether or not it is labelled. A hamburger icon labelled with a word like “menu” or “more” or “options” is going to be far more effective than an unlabelled icon.
@andybudd Adding the word “menu” next to it goes a long way, and would help with teaching aspect to help it become more familiar in time.— Paul Annett (@PaulAnnett) January 16, 2016
Don’t believe me? Good! Do some testing.
In my experience, 80-90% of the benefit of usability testing is in the area of labelling. And one of the lowest hanging fruit is the realisation that “Oh yeah, we should probably label that icon that we assumed would be universally understood.”
Andy mentions the “play” and “pause” symbols as an example of icons that are so well understood that they can stand by themselves. That’s not necessarily true.
@andybudd FWIW, I know some people in their 60s who couldn’t tell you what the two line pause icon would do on a web video player.— Paul Annett (@PaulAnnett) January 16, 2016
I think there are two good rules of thumb when it comes to using icons:
- If in doubt, label it.
- If not in doubt, you probably should be—test your assumptions.
Now that we’ve established the three criteria for evaluating an icon’s effectiveness, let’s see how the hamburger icon stacks up (if you’ll pardon the pun):
- Representation: It depends. Is it representing a stacked list of menu items? If so, good. If not, reconsider.
- Usage: it depends. Is it being used as an excuse to throw literally all your navigation behind it? If so, reconsider. Prioritise. Decide what needs to be visible, and what can be tucked away.
- Clarity: it depends. Is the icon labelled? If so, good. If not, less good.
So there you go. The answer to the question “Is the hamburger icon good or bad?” is a resounding and clear “It depends.”
Tuesday, November 10th, 2015
This looks like a terrific presentation from Alla on iconography, semiotics, and communication.
Wednesday, May 20th, 2015
The controversial hamburger icon goes mainstream with this story on the BBC News site.
It still amazes me that, despite clear data, many designers cling to the belief that the icon by itself is understandable (or that users will “figure it out eventually”). Why the aversion to having a label for the icon?
Tuesday, December 2nd, 2014
Typeset In The Future is back with another cracking analysis. This time—following on from 2001 and Moon—we’ve got Alien.
In her final recorded message before hypersleep, Ripley notes that she is the sole survivor of the Nostromo. What she forgets to mention is that she has not once in the past two hours encountered any Eurostile Bold Extended.
Thursday, January 10th, 2013
I really like Mark’s idea of standardised “sparkicons” …for a while there, reading this, I was worried he was going to propose something like Snap Preview. shudder
Thursday, November 8th, 2012
Meanwhile, there’s been some great research into dealing with high-DPI displays (which the world and its dog have decided to label “retina”). There’s the in-depth analysis by Daan Jobsis which looks at what you can get away with when it comes to compression and quality for “retina” displays: quite a lot, as it turns out.
In fact, you may well be able to double the dimensions of an image while simultaneously bringing down its quality and end up with an image that is smaller in file size than the original, while still looking great on
high-DP..— displays. The guys over at Filament group have labelled this Compressive Images. Nice.
I’m generally fan of solutions that look for ways of avoiding the problem in the first place. Hence my approach to image optimisation for all devices, widescreen or narrow.
Of course this whole issue of responsive (or compressive) images should really only apply to photographic imagery. If you’re dealing with “text as images” …don’t. Use web fonts. If you’re dealing with logos or icons, there are other options, like SVG.
Then there’s the combination of web fonts and iconography. Why not use a small web font containing just the icons you need?
I tried this recently, diligently following Josh’s excellent blog post detailing how to get icon shapes out of Fireworks, into a font editor, and then into an actual font. It works a treat, although I concur with Josh’s suggestion that the technique should really only be implemented using the
::after pseudo-elements in combination with base-64 encoding the font file. That means it won’t work in every single browser, but that’s the point: these icons should be an enhancement, not a requirement.
Having gone through the tortuous steps required to get my Mac all set up with the software required to follow Josh’s tutorial, I then spotted the note at the end of his article that pointed to Icomoon. That turns out to be a fantastic service. You can pick and choose from the icons provided or you can upload your own vector shapes. Then you can assign the unicode slots you want to use for the icons and you can get the resulting font file base-64 encoded. Very, very cool!
Friday, November 2nd, 2012
This is a great free service for generating small subsetted icon fonts. Launch the app and have a play around — you can choose from the icons provided or you can import your own SVG shapes.
Nice touch: you can get the resulting font (mapped to your choice of unicode characters) base-64 encoded for your stylesheet.
Thursday, August 16th, 2012
Tim shows how to make a scalable three-line navicon in CSS.
Wednesday, August 15th, 2012
A nifty service for creating a custom font with just the icons you need.
Friday, June 22nd, 2012
It’s really good to see more providers of icon font sets. These look very nicely designed indeed.
Monday, March 19th, 2012
Andy documents the kinds of symbols being used to represent revealable navigation on mobile.
Saturday, January 21st, 2012
In an interesting new twist, Pictos now allows you to put together a custom subset of their icons as a font that can be served from their server just like any other webfont service.
Tuesday, December 20th, 2011
Jon gives us a run-through on what to expect from his new book. I’ve had a sneak peek and it looks amazing—I can’t wait to get my hands on a copy.
Wednesday, December 22nd, 2010
A fascinating look at the experience design of the 9h brand of capsule hotel. I like the consistent use of colour, light and iconography.
Sunday, July 5th, 2009
A set of icons (in different sizes) from various trendy websites to use in your designs.
Monday, May 4th, 2009
If you've ever broken/strained a limb, you'll know how tedious it gets answering the inevitable "what happened?" question time and time again.
Thursday, October 11th, 2007
A series of infographics comparing Chinese and German culture. Amusing and astute.
Monday, March 26th, 2007
Dave has made some icons — very nice ones.