Leaky and ambiguous icons

Leaky and ambiguous icons

I’ve created many icons over the years. So I know from personal experience just how difficult they can be to design. The objective of icon design is usually to produce the simplest possible image that unambiguously communicates a concept. Sometimes that concept is a thing: like a folder or a trash can; sometimes it’s an action: like swiping a card or summoning a nurse. There are two reasons why icons should be as simple as possible: they are less cluttered and work in small sizes; they are less likely it is to “leak” unintended messages. The first reason is self explanatory. The second is worth exploring in more detail. As an example, take a look at this icon I found in a hospital. The purpose of the button is to summon a nurse. The icon doesn’t attempt to convey the action of summoning. Instead, it shows a picture of a nurse. But is that all the icon is communicating? I see several other messages in this icon: Nurses are women Nurses are slim and totter around on pin-like legs Nurses wear figure hugging clothes with short skirts Nurses carry items like drinks Nurses wear old-fashioned clothes, or it is appropriate to be nostalgic about when they did. …and there are doubtless many more. The presuppositions and cultural context of the designer are leaking out of the icon. In this case, the ideas leaked are so far from today’s social norms that I believe the hospital should consider changing the buttons. A cost that would have been entirely unnecessary if the icon had been a bell, for example. But while...