May 11, 2007

The tortoise and the… camera

Writing about web page http://www.nytimes.com/2007/05/10/technology/10basics.html

The tortoise and the cameraBrowsing the New York Times this morning, I noticed this image in the sidebar of the article I was reading. Based on the image, what do you think the article was about?

  • The photographic memory of the tortoise?
  • Cameras which work by actually sucking their subjects inside their body?
  • Animal-technology hybridization (the bionic turtle, if you will)?
  • Deadly camera-destroying amphibians which like to chew their way through consumer electronics?

Disappointingly, it’s none of the above; it’s shutter lag in digital cameras. It makes sense once you know, and on the page itself, it’s a whimsical but not absurd illustration of the topic. But it’s an amusing example of the icon problem; most modern interfaces use icons to represent actions and objects. So the home icon in your web browser means “Go to your home page”, and the left arrow icon means “Go back to the previous page”. But how do you know what an icon means?

  • Sometimes the implication of the icon is so obvious that even if you’ve never seen this icon used before you can guess what it will do.
  • Some icons are universally used to mean something, so even though the icon doesn’t imply its meaning in isolation, you learn its meaning once and can then re-use your knowledge everywhere else. The cut/copy/paste icons are like this; they aren’t intuitive, but since every application which supports CCP (which is almost all applications) uses them, you end up knowing what they stand for even though they don’t visually represent themselves clearly.

The problem is that most icons aren’t like this. Most actions aren’t easy to convey with a single static image. Most applications have a bunch of actions and objects which are specific to that application, and therefore the designer can’t rely on users having seen and learned the iconography elsewhere. Example: how many of these icons (from PowerPoint) can you confidently predict the meaning of?

PowerPoint icons


- 6 comments by 2 or more people Not publicly viewable

[Skip to the latest comment]
  1. Frankie Roberto

    I didn’t get the cut-copy-paste icons. Don’t most people use the keyboard shortcuts for these actions, rather than the icon-led buttons?

    11 May 2007, 10:40

  2. Pierre Schramm

    For the Powerpoint (and I don’t use Microsoft Office so I’m not cheating here) there’s a few I don’t recognise, particularly the penultimate line, and the fourth on the first line… Can you please let me know what they mean?

    11 May 2007, 23:46

  3. Jee

    the 37signals people had a ‘fireside chat’ with some icon designers recently, some of the things they had to say about the relevance and importance of icons nowadays was quite interesting:
    http://www.37signals.com/svn/posts/371-fireside-chat-icon-designers-part-1-of-3

    12 May 2007, 09:15

  4. John Dale

    The icons are:-

    • Row 1: New, Open, Save, Permission, Email as attachment
    • Row 2: Print, Print Preview, Spelling, Research
    • Row 3: Cut, Copy, Paste, Format Painter
    • Row 4: Undo, Redo
    • Row 5: Insert chart, Insert table, Tables and borders, Insert hyperlink
    • Row 6: Expand all, Show formatting, Show.hide grid, Colour/Greyscale
    • Row 7: Draw table, Eraser, Border colour, Outside borders, Fill colour

    14 May 2007, 13:39

  5. Long Zheng

    “Deadly camera-destroying amphibians which like to chew their way through consumer electronics?”
    Ha. You made my day :D

    15 May 2007, 12:12

  6. MIke Irwin

    I’m curious about the almost standard icons I see on every make of camera. These Icons are the same, tell me to do the same action. Who the heck owns these icons (all of the manufactures can’t lay claim to them).. Now we go outside of cameras to all of the other icons that fill the manuals and are stamped on numerous technical communication and recording devices.. where do they come from and who owns them?

    08 Oct 2007, 22:58


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