Saturday, October 17, 2009

I didn't get the chance to use the awesome word, 'semiotics,' in this post, so I'll use it here.

They say there are only two hard problems in computer science: cache invalidation and naming things.

I am not a computer scientist; I wouldn't know.

But I believe I can sympathize, because there are – very similarly – only two hard problems in web design: cross-browser compatibility and making icons for things.

This entry is primarily concerned with the latter.

I have been known to spend hours staring at my screen, wondering how to visually represent a concept like “websites.” Or how to create a picture of "give" and ensure that it's not mistaken for "take."

It doesn't help that the established icons for so many things are already obsolete. The idea of email is almost always represented by a picture of an envelope. Hello! When was the last time you packaged your email into an envelope before sending it off? And the "Save" icon – a floppy disk – hasn't made sense since the last century.

I think we'd all be better off if we abandoned our notion that a picture is worth a thousand words, and just started using – well – words. Highly popular websites, like Amazon and eBay, have hardly any incomprehensible graphics cluttering up their interfaces.

And if the eye-candy addicts out there can't stand the thought of a web page without pictures, I hereby decree that we should emphasize color as the way to differentiate things. Once I'm familiar with set of options (say, in a menu where little icons precede the item name), I scan the list in search of the icon with the right color. I don't really read the names, and I'm certainly not keeping my eyes peeled for the tiny little picture of the two blobs that look kind of like hands shaking each other. So colors it is! I'm going to use this technique the next time I'm asked to design a web site.

Which looks like it'll be never.