Icons and the FOSS desktop

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

May 31, 2010 GMT
Bruce Byfield

Icons have always intimidated me. Except for the mouseover help, two-thirds of the time I would have no idea what function they represent. Shrink them so that they fit on a toolbar, and the obscurity is compounded by illegibility. On the free and open source software (FOSS) desktop, icons seem to be one of the last holdouts against usability, with neither of the two main strategies for designing icons being particularly successful.

Admittedly, icons on the FOSS desktop have come a long way since the early years of this century, when GNOME's logout button looked like an illustration from Goodnight Moon, or possibly a sign indicating an outhouse.

That icon disappeared when the first usability study showed that people had no idea what it indicated, to be replaced (more sensibly) in many distributions with an open door and an arrow or a person passing through it to suggest to leaving. Similarly, when I open up the copy of OpenOffice.org that comes with Debian, I see icons for font weights, alignment and indentation whose functions are obvious at a glance. Other icons, such as the letters ABC above a check mark for spellchecking, or binoculars for search, are less immediately identifiable, but still more or less decipherable.

However, such improvements seem to be only the most obvious and most easily iconified features in any applications. Open any application, and you are likely to stumble across icons whose connections to the features they invoke is either obscure, or recognizable only after a moments' thought. For instance, what connection do the developers of VirtualBox imagine between a cog and Settings? Why does the Krita team use three overlapping circles for Paint with Filters or the maintainers of KDE's System Settings between what looks like a pad of paper with a diagonal slash through it for Appearance?

It gets worse, too. I have yet to decipher what the icon for Browse represents in Okular, or the one for Properties in digiKam.

And these are not necessarily the worst offenders -- just random examples taken from the applications I run regularly. Nor are these examples meant to condemn a particular desktop or application, although I have noticed that newer GNOME applications tend to have more easily identifiable icons than most.

Regardless of the desktops or applications, I suspect that a lot of people are like me, and only work with some of these icons by remembering their position on the toolbar -- especially in applications like The GIMP, with its thirty sub-microscopic icons. Clearly, there is not only rooms, but entire country estates left for improvement.

Abstract reductions

One way that designers have tried to address the usability problem is by simplifying the icons to a few basic shapes. This tactic has the advantage of producing clear images even at small sizes yet by itself is not enough to produce usable icons.

For instance, in the latest Ubuntu, the Internet applet on the panel is two arrows, one pointing up and one pointing down. Command line users will recognize the design as a reference to the ifup and ifdown commands used to configure ethernet connections, but, to the desktop users that Ubuntu targets, the reference will be meaningless.

The same is true of the orange starburst update icon in the notification of Fedora and several other distributions. The icon suggests a matter of urgency (which usually it is not; at least, not a matter that must be attended to this very second), but what is so urgent is not conveyed at all. The same lack of identifiable purpose is visible in the rectangle and a plus sign to mean Open in several newer applications such as GNOME's Simple Scan. Simplification is a worthwhile goal in a media as limited as icons, but if the design is over-simplified, then all the designer has found is a new way to be obscure.

Nostalgic references

The second major tactic in icon design is to refer back to older technologies. For instance, the floppy drive has been dying slowly for over a decade, and has been not used as a main store device for twenty years. So why is it still being used in many applications for the save icon?

I see that the latest version of Ubuntu has tried to update this icon by showing an external drive, but it is harder to depict clearly in a few dozen pixels than a floppy drive, and the reference is weakened by the fact that an external drive is what most people use for back ups, not for saving files.

In the same way, the Lancelot menu in KDE (to use another random example) uses three obsolete cultural references for its top level menus. Computer is indicated appropriately enough by a laptop, but Applications are indicated by a CD leaning against a box -- never mind that this is free software, and applications rarely come in boxes. Lancelot also uses a stack of letters for Contacts, and a typewriter for documents. Some of these same icons can be found in other KDE applications as well.

Such cultural references may be tempting to designers, because they seem a quick way to solve the problem of how to produce a recognizable icon. But the trouble with such references is that, as time passes, they become less and less meaningful. I am old enough to remember (and bless!) the transition from typewriters to word processors, but today I do not immediately associate typewriters with documents.

Nor does snail mail come to my mind when I think of an address book. These days when I use the word "address," I usually mean an URL or email address. When I want to refer to a postal address, I usually qualify it as a street address.

If such icons hold such little meaning for me, how much less can they mean to a twenty something who has never used a typewriter, and possibly never seen one in person? For young adults, even a recently obsolete technology like floppy drives may not carry much meaning. And when, as in the GNOME desktop of the latest Ubuntu, an envelope represents not only email, but also messaging, the analog is so remote to many users that it might as well not be used.

What seems at first to be a convenient shortcut on second glance becomes only slightly less arbitrary than a randomly selected symbol.

Rethinking icons

Compared to the task of improving functionality, developing meaningful icons might seem trivial. Part of me must agree, since, despite all the complaints I make here, I still manage to accomplish my necessary tasks. All the same, if usability needs to be a priority if the FOSS desktop is to become widely used, then icons are one of the obvious starting points.

Right now, I can find very few applications which have a complete set of default icons that are usable. Firefox does. Brassero very nearly does, except that the common element of a disc is far larger than the unique element that defines each function. However, most applications have a mixture of clear, distinct icons and ones that fail for one reason or the other.

In fact, modern applications, proprietary and FOSS alike, seem to me explicit admissions that icons do not work very well. Many applications provide mouseover help to help users identify the icons. The KDE desktop goes one step further, offering thumbnails to help you see what each icon does or contains. If icons worked the way they are supposed to, then why would these supporting structures even exist?

Many icons are simply inherited, like a man page that passes from operating system to operating system without being updated. Yet it seems to me that the FOSS community either needs to get even more serious about icon design that it currently is, replacing the icons that fail to convey information, or else consider if icons are worth having at all.

True, icons contribute strongly to the look of a desktop or an application, and doing without them would seem strange. But they are redundant, since the same functions are available from the menu or via keyboard shortcuts. So, if most of them are not functional, why keep them simply for the sake of tradition? Icons may have been originally designed to help users navigate, but, if so many of them are unreliable markers, then either they need to be seriously improved, or perhaps eliminated altogether.


  • three circles icon in Krita

    The three circles icon Krita for filters? Simple, originally, a filter was a bit bit colored or otherwise special glass you attached to your cameras lens or the lens of your negative enlargement thingy (don't know the right word in English...) to change the colors, polarization or whatever you could do with a bit of glass and some light.

    Since lenses are round, filters used to be round -- and it's these filters that were taken as the inispiration for the Krita icon.

    Whether it's a good icon or not, I don't know. It's the same sort of thing as the common cut, copy and paste icons that resemble scissors and a pasteboard: metaphors that date back from before the computing era and young people won't recognize anymore, because they never edited their school mag with scissors, glue and typp-ex.
  • what do icons ofer

    Yes we have pull-down menus, problem is and this is the reason icons cammed to be so common, its that the visual hint they provide is faster to find than the text, simply because its a different part of your brain that interprets it, recognition is way faster on a image than in a piece of text. the pull down menus work as a big image, and your brain will tend to see it as a map meaning you will remember that the action you are after was the one 3 steeps under a image of a cow.

    Because of tool-bars, we started to make a icon for each action, and that lead to pull-down menus filled with images, witch is bad, since it loses the big map like structure. but a icon for each action is good on a toll-bar and in some over crowded with actions apps is the only answer. Apps such as drawing applications document editing cad etc will allays need lots of icons simply because text takes way to much space and prioritising actions is impossible in some cases.

    Most of the value of an icon is not the learn ability of what it does, it is the ease of recognition it provides once you know what it does.

    KDE for example gives you the possibility to use no icons at all, try it fora period and tell-me if your productively increases, It wont it will fall because you will be making it harder for your brain to mentally create maps of an application, its just streets with all the same look and signposts that look all the same you will end up feeling lost. BTW all of this as been tested several hundred times.
  • How we got here

    First there was the text interface. You entered commands. You had to remember the commands, you couldn't pick them from a list.

    First GUI's appeared in the Apple Lisa and Macintosh. Apple invented the pull down menu. (That element, and a few other elements did not come from Xerox.) The pull down menu made it possible to have many commands instantly available at the click-pull of the mouse. This is also where we see large scale use of icons. Icons represent documents (nouns) and applications (verbs). Note that at this time (1983, 1984) icons do NOT represent commands within an application. Icons are difficult enough to design, but you only need one for your application and its documents. They typically reflect some kind of "branding" of both the application and its related documents.

    Microsoft creates copycat Windows. (And makes some real improvements such as the concept of the "focus", sticky pull down menus, other things, and eventually, in Win 95 the context menu right-click.)

    Microsoft Office applications give us the toolbar. I always thought this was a step backward. The pull down menus offered a large menu of commands, but kept the details hidden until you pulled down the menu. The toolbars take up additional screen space in order to offer you the exact same commands that are on the pull down menus. This evolves until you can eventually fully customize the contents and number of toolbars to your liking and put whatever commands you want onto any toolbar. In fact, you can fill most of the screen with toolbars that expose almost every command available.

    Toolbars use the icons that the article complains about. This is where the icon problem comes in. Icons being used to represent dozens or even hundreds of application commands. The command names on pull down menus worked great. I could explore the pull down menus and discover the commands by name. As the article states, the icons communicate almost nothing. They seem useful because they expose the commands hidden in the pull down menu. They are actually not useful because they expose meaninglessness in the form of illegible and unrecognizable icons. Oh, but you can configure toolbars to show the command name next to or underneath each icon! But this wastes even more screen real estate.

    Next logical step in evolution: back to just pull down menus with command names and no icons. happy

  • Oxygen Icons

    Hey I'm the current Oxygen coordinator.

    You touch allot of subjects and would take me a huge amount of time to cover them all, but i will give you a bit of insight of most of the problems.

    First one, and, less important one, the floppy save icon, .... its an abstraction just like the database icon is, no one discusses the look of the database icon, do you know what those the silver discs are? yet it is the common metaphor database and no one discusses it, its a sign you learn like "don't cross here" the fact that the floppy disc as fallen out of use and no longer represents a physical real element is a good thing.
    (I have real test data to back this up)

    You mention Krita, we in the oxygen project have on our immediate to-do list well over 1400 to-dos icons, krita icons are in that list, open source icon themes are by far the most challenging task in the icon world, mac entire icon set ins in the whereabouts of 200 icons, windows not more than 500, but KDE base alone Was 1300 different icons, if my numbers are not completely wrong a complete OSS icon theme is well over 3500 different icons, so it takes time to-do it wont be done in a day, I will tell you that making an oxygen icon can take from 2 to 8 hours will also tell you that the current implementation is version 3 soo yeah huge huge work.

    You should also note that we in oxygen have been making rather extensive usability testing (check my blog for more info) on this icons, with actual modifications being made out of this tests. If you have the patience I can have a longer chat with you about all the work that goes into making a Moster like Oxygen is.
  • Re: Just a thought

    I'm not wild about cliches like "dead beat," either.
  • icons fallacy

    A core problem with Icon, has nothing to do with Icons, but with assumptions about icons. There is an assumptions that Icons help make using a pc more intuitive. this is a false assumption based on a false premise. Computers by there nature are non-intuitive devices. The near ubiquitous nature of Window's and it's cascade effect on other device interfaces obscures this fact. SImple example of this fact is to take a die-hard Mac user and put them in front of Windows. Or do the reverse, and you get the same results.

    Icon's are there as short cuts because we humans process pictures fast than words. Combine that with location muscle memory and icon's become useful methods of improve interaction speed with the computer.
  • Turn 'em off

    Ever since I read this as a tip on planet.gnome.org a few years back (I forget whose blog it was from, sorry) I've simply turned icons off everywhere I can.

    Run gconf-editor and go to desktop / gnome / interface , and set the key 'toolbar_style' to 'text' and the key 'menus_have_icons' to off (can also set the key 'buttons_have_icons' to off if you like). In all GNOME apps, meaningless toolbar icons will now be replaced by text descriptions, and useless icons on menus will not be shown. It's way, way, simpler, looks cleaner (to me anyway), and probably makes things slightly faster as it saves a bit of icon reading / rendering time.

    Unfortunately, it seems that the menus_have_icons key no longer applies to the 'start' menus, though it used to - I still get icons there, since about GNOME 2.28. Ah, well. If anyone knows of some new key to turn off icons in the 'start' menus, do let me know...
  • Icons are not for new users

    Although a "perfect" icon can be very helpful to a new user of an application or desktop and there are some users who remain novices forever. However most users get to know a piece of software. The real value in icons, even the small misshaped ones is with muscle memory. After a while you get used to them and know when you "Save" a file you click on the black smudge at the far end of the group above the blue smudge and next to the red smudge with the yellow dot in it.

    When used properly and well thought out, Icons improve the use of on-screen real estate.

    I am an individual who has a hot key for about everything and I still find icons useful to have around. I run an old fashioned Afterstep Wharf style dock app called wmbutton which provides a 3x3 grid of 9 icons that are 16x16 in size. I also use xtdesk to provide desktop icons, each icon has a right click menu which can launch other applications, effectively making each icon a mini menu.

    What makes all of that usefull? All my icons (and wmbutton) are placed at an edge of a screen where they are easy to locate and where muscle memory pays off the most.
  • Not quite

    "However, such improvements seem to be only the most obvious and most easily iconified features in any applications. Open any application, and you are likely to stumble across icons whose connections to the features they invoke is either obscure, or recognizable only after a moments' thought. For instance, what connection do the developers of VirtualBox imagine between a cog and Settings? Why does the Krita team use three overlapping circles for Paint with Filters or the maintainers of KDE's System Settings between what looks like a pad of paper with a diagonal slash through it for Appearance?

    It gets worse, too. I have yet to decipher what the icon for Browse represents in Okular, or the one for Properties in digiKam."

    A cog represents the inner workings of an application thus equating it to settings, nevermind that a cog has been used to represent settings in many different applications for windows linux and Mac for many years.

    That "pad of paper" actually looks to be a window with a diagonal slash dividing it between different themes (notice the red box in the upper right hand corner).

    The "browse" function in Okular is where you use your mouse to click and drag to move through the pages. In this case, the mouse icon is very appropriate but the word "browse" next to it could be replaced by better word.

    From what I can see, digikam doesn't have a "properties" button/menu option. It does have a "Configure Digikam" menu option in the "settings" menu, and that is very well represented by a wrench icon.

    I don't know about Gnome but in KDE the Oxygen project tries to make the most visually representative and consistent icons as they can.
    They have icon usability studies where users have to pick an icon from a list that best represents a function. One for Kmail revealed that there needed to be some improvements made to the icons and this work is ongoing.

    The problem with making icons is it is really hard to make a visual representation of a function of a program that conveys the same meaning to everyone and doesn't clash with the appearance of another icon. The Oxygen project trys to limit the use of arrows unless it is absolutely necessary because arrows are so overused that a user can get confused with what the icon means.
  • Rethinking icons

    The point is that icons should always be updated to reflect the technology. A floppy is no longer meaningful. A previous comment suggests using a hard driver, however, platter hard drives might no longer exist in a few years as well, with the advent of SSD's. But the internal representation is obscure: why a stack of plates represents storage? I bet 99% of the users have never opened up a hard drive to see how things are on the inside...
    I would personally prefer saving as a cabinet, like an old directory, with an arrow pointing down, or any other which didn't associate the action with physical computer components.
    But all this discussion is about the save button. What to do with all others?
    I am a KDE user and I was shocked by the typewriter representing the office category in programs...
  • I hate icons

    I am a literate person and I am slowed down and often feel insulted that I have to guess what an icon represents when one or maybe two words would communicate much easier with me. I don't have a solution but I prefer menus to icons. I would much rather have the screen space back for my use.
  • Just a thought

    If you think about the term "dead beat" for a moment, what does it mean? a dead beat dad? mom? maybe friend, or co-worker? We understand it well enough, without thinking about what it means. Just a quick thought, or none at all, when referring to a person as a "deadbeat" and we can instantly start to make our judgement on the person, whether it's true or false, and if it's a false accusation, we begin to think of why they are referred to that way. The point is, we know exactly what it means, how to use the word, and how to make judgments on the context the word is used in.

    Did you know where the word came from though? The word was coined in the late 1800's when railroad workers noticed that loaded freight cars made a different beat over the track-joints than cars that weren't carrying a load. The empty cars made a "dead beat" which meant they weren't carrying their load. By the beginning of the 20th century "deadbeat" came to be a meaning for people who failed to carry their share of the load also.

    So what's my point? A floppy drive icon may be an outdated reference to something that doesn't have much meaning anymore in our age. But, it does have a reference to saving information. You understand that icon means "to save your information". A few more decades of use of the "floppy drive icon" and most will have no clue where it came from, nor would it matter. It would take no thought at all to understand what the icon means, just like the term deadbeat. We would just know, that button must save the information.

    Someone may tell you why and how that icon came about many years ago, and it would just be a "cool fact" like the term deadbeat, though the meaning is still there. If you are worried about icons taking to much "thinking and comprehending" in order to decipher it's meaning, then changing icons around may not be the right answer. Why not, rather than worry about "late twenty somethings" not understanding their origin, realize that the origin does not matter and the meaning of the "floppy drive" icon is very well grounded.
  • Icons

    Let's not forget that good old floppy disk icon representing the save function. Wouldn't a hard disk be more appropriate?

    But to be fair, the more abstract and unintelligible icons one has, the more l33t he will appear to the casual user.
  • oh icons!

    I read about this subject recently... where was that... oh yes! Canonical seems to be forking Icons now big-smile so we all must suddenly talk about icons like we care?

    Does anyone really care about icons? Really? I've never ever ever heard people complain about icons in Linux. Ever. But hardware detection crops up now and then, for instance happy quality of some classes of software... minor stuff like that happy

comments powered by Disqus
Subscribe to our Linux Newsletters
Find Linux and Open Source Jobs
Subscribe to our ADMIN Newsletters

Support Our Work

Linux Magazine content is made possible with support from readers like you. Please consider contributing when you’ve found an article to be beneficial.

Learn More