Hey kids, let’s sit down and read a bedtime story!

Once upon a time, we made photorealistic representations of everything we wanted to do on the computer. I know, right? Human ingenuity is so… plucky, cramming all that info into a 16×16 space.

Over time, a funny thing has happened, though – most of the things we want to do on computers don’t have physical equivalents any more. Worse, the few icons that WERE sort of universal are now just sort of silly:

  • The universal icon for “call” is a classic phone headset. When was the last time you used a landline phone? I have one in my office, and every time it rings (infrequently) I momentarily panic because I literally don’t know if I should answer it via the software or that handset.
  • We all know that “save” is problematic. I know you’ve never seen one, but the standard ‘save’ icon is a floppy disk. And not even the floppy kind of floppy disk! We used these to store the equivalent of one or two Tweets and take them between computers.
  • Occasionally CD-ROMs get used as icons, not that you’ve seen one of those in real life either.
  • Clipboards for pasting. Why didn’t we just end up using a paste bucket? The only time I’ve EVER reliably used a clipboard is for TheatreSports, and it’s not for saving little snippets. Do you own a clipboard? Do you know where to find a clipboard?
  • File folders… well, I still use these, but I still print things out from time to time. I’m old-fashioned that way.
  • “Pinning” things. I suppose this is still A Thing, though pins are mostly the territory of schoolteachers and the occasional college student with a corkboard.
  • Trash. Why do all trashcan icons (except the Recycle Bin) mimic Oscar the Grouch’s trash can? We never owned one of those. Trashcans are big plastic things, sometimes with a Waste Management logo on them. Or small plastic things. Not corrugated metal things. Showing me Oscar’s trash can sends the promise that Oscar is nearby, so you’re constantly breaking my heart.
  • Photo icons always have white borders but photos never do. WHY IS THAT?
  • Of course, book icons are probably next on the chopping block. Paper books are so 2007.
  • The ever-present “X” and “check” icons for confirmation don’t even localize properly. When I worked in games, all the Japanese versions of the games used “X” for yes and “O” for cancel/no. Even the things we think are universal… aren’t.

And don’t even get me started on icons for server software. When was the last time you saw a physical server? They’re just big rectangles now, discernable mainly by their blinky lights (which aren’t well-captured in icons.)

At least writing implements still hold up; pens, erasers, highlighters. We can use those as icons. FOR NOW. And shopping carts. They’re still OK, as long as you’re not talking about the physical kind that rolls around and scratches your car.

But most things are moving away from pictographic representations. My Windows Taskbar looks like a kindergarten language exercise. I have icons that say “O”, “P”, “E”, “W”, “N”, “Fw”, and “Ai”. It’s surprising I haven’t started to send subliminal messages to people seeing my presentations by arranging these into little messages.

That’s one of the reasons why this whole Microsoft Windows/Metro movement is such a relief. Those icons on my taskbar are one step away from typography anyway; might as well embrace it. A world where we’re forced to use icons for every teensy concept (coughribboncough) means that it’s near-impossible to tell any of the icons apart. The monkeys at an icon typewriter problem.

It’s not a perfect world – notice how lots of Metro apps use photos of the content in question. That works fine until you get a bunch of content that doesn’t have a photographic equivalent, like spreadsheets or servers. Still getting my head around the best way to deal with those challenges.

But I, for one, am not mourning the era of shiny icons. I’ve seen enough tiny gradients for a lifetime. Time for some fun with typography, color, hierarchy, and movement. It’s harder to get right, but worth the effort. And text-based interfaces come with other bonuses, like increased accessibility without extra affordances, and random nostalgic flashbacks to the Zork games.

As time progresses, loath as many of us are to invoke the overused film, maybe Minority Report wasn’t so far off after all. Besides, the more virtual our world becomes, the fewer analog concepts there are to illustrate at all.

Ironically, as I was writing this, the popular webcomic PvP tackled a similar issue that’s coming up in cartooning. Apparently some prominent cartoonists were lamenting the difficulty of depicting physical action in a virtual world. PvP essentially encourages those folks to join us in the 21st century, using Star Trek as an apt example.

Still, we’ll be desperately reaching for physical representations of virtual concepts, and vice-versa, for a very long time to come.

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