Tags: semiotics

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Friday, September 28th, 2018

Letterform Archive – From the Collection: Blissymbolics

The fascinating story of Charles K. Bliss and his symbolic language:

The writing system – originally named World Writing in 1942, then Semantography in 1947, and finally Blissymoblics in the 1960s – contains several hundred basic geometric symbols (“Bliss-characters”) that can be combined in different ways to represent more complex concepts (“Bliss-words”). For example, the Bliss-characters for “house” and “medical” are combined to form the Bliss-word for “hospital” or “clinic”. The modular structure invites comparison to the German language; the German word for “hospital ” – “krankenhaus” – translates directly to “sick house”.

Sunday, June 10th, 2018

Monday, April 23rd, 2018

The Woman Who Gave the Macintosh a Smile | The New Yorker

A profile of Susan Kare, icon designer extraordinaire.

I loved the puzzle-like nature of working in sixteen-by-sixteen and thirty-two-by-thirty-two pixel icon grids, and the marriage of craft and metaphor.

Monday, July 3rd, 2017

Greetings, E.T. (Please Don’t Murder Us.) - The New York Times

Steven Johnson dives deep into the METI project, starting with the Arecibo message and covering Lincos, the Drake equation, and the Fermi paradox.

He also wrote about what he left out of the article and mentions that he’s writing a book on long-term decision making.

In a sense, the METI debate runs parallel to other existential decisions that we will be confronting in the coming decades, as our technological and scientific powers increase. Should we create superintelligent machines that exceed our own intellectual capabilities by such a wide margin that we cease to understand how their intelligence works? Should we ‘‘cure’’ death, as many technologists are proposing? Like METI, these are potentially among the most momentous decisions human beings will ever make, and yet the number of people actively participating in those decisions — or even aware such decisions are being made — is minuscule.

Thursday, November 24th, 2016

History of Icons – a visual brief on icon history by FUTURAMO

An illustrated history of digital iconography.

Monday, November 21st, 2016

Free Icon Design Guide - Icon Utopia

Here you go: a free book on icon design in three parts, delivered via email.

Wednesday, March 2nd, 2016

Atomic Classification | Trent Walton

There is one truism that has been constant throughout my career on the web, and it’s this: naming things is hard.

Trent talks about the strategies out there for naming things. He makes specific mention of Atomic Design, which as Brad is always at pains to point out, is just one way of naming things: atoms, molecules, organisms, etc.

In some situations, having that pre-made vocabulary is perfect. In other situations, I’ve seen it cause all sorts of problems. It all depends on the project and the people.

Personally, I like the vocabulary to emerge from the domain knowledge of the people on the project. Building a newspaper website? Use journalism-related terms. Making a website about bicycles? Use bike-related terms.

Most importantly, make the naming process a collaborative exercise, as outlined by Alla and Charlotte.

Tuesday, January 19th, 2016

Hamburger, hamburger, hamburger

Andy’s been playing Devils 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:

  1. representation,
  2. usage, and
  3. clarity.

Representation

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…

Usage

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:

Clarity

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.

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.

I think there are two good rules of thumb when it comes to using icons:

  1. If in doubt, label it.
  2. If not in doubt, you probably should be—test your assumptions.

Results

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):

  1. Representation: It depends. Is it representing a stacked list of menu items? If so, good. If not, reconsider.
  2. 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.
  3. 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

A Semiotic Approach to Designing Interfaces // Speaker Deck

This looks like a terrific presentation from Alla on iconography, semiotics, and communication.

Wednesday, May 20th, 2015

Hamburger icon: How these three lines mystify most people - BBC News

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?

Wednesday, March 25th, 2015

Thomas Byttebier - The best icon is a text label

A look at the risks of relying on a purely graphical icon for interface actions. When in doubt, label it.

Tuesday, December 2nd, 2014

Alien | Typeset In The Future

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.

Friday, February 7th, 2014

Origins of Common UI Symbols

A lovely little tour of eleven ubiquitous icons.

Tuesday, December 20th, 2011

The Icon Handbook | The Hickensian | Hicksdesign

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, February 9th, 2011

Damn Interesting • This Place is Not a Place of Honor

Trying to design a warning message for future generations, without relying on language, writing or current semiotics.

We considered ourselves to be a powerful culture. This place is not a place of honor…no highly esteemed deed is commemorated here… nothing valued is here. What is here is dangerous and repulsive to us.