Could we kill the icon?

Moving away from abstracted & physical representations, and more towards our digitally native environment.

When it comes to user interfaces, I don’t care too much for the concept of skeuomorphism anymore. It’s become too ambiguous, and the conversations surrounding the term tend to focus on textural skins and theatrical graphics.

But ever since Apple released their latest major revision of their mobile OS, now that we’re starting to lose those textures, I’ve become obsessed with the idea the abstraction and influence on the interface. I posted the question on Twitter:

“How would user interfaces look if we had no preconception of their analogies? No magnifying glasses for search; no cogs for settings.”

And then, with that tweet, I realised I had unintentionally focused on icons. It’s icons that are still the problem. Even now, while the digital space is becoming more native, the icons still sit there… out of place.

I’ve read other people’s comments about how the floppy disk icon is a good thing. Seriously? Think about it. That’s holding onto the past; and providing a lack of recognition for young people, who will literally have no idea what one is.

So I started sketching.

Sketch of icons

And then I started categorising.

Warning: pointless, contrived categorisation ahead. #

Metaphors #

Home, Settings, Tools, Search, Favourite

These are icons that we’ve decided to associate loosely with our digital world. As an icon, they have a slightly different meaning when applied to a UI, as opposed to the physical world.

Predecessors #

Video camera, Phone, Floppy disk, Calendar

These are products that have provided a very similar purpose to the pure digital form that’s available on unified products of today (e.g. mobile phones).

Internals #

#Hashtags, @Mentions

Apps like Twitter have started to create their own internal iconology. This utilised recognition of their core content, and applies it to the UI.

Conventionals #

Reply, Share, Reload

These are the evolved version of internal icons; ones that have become highly recognised and conventional, making their way from old browsers, to modern iOS apps.

Ok, let’s stop there. #

There’s probably more (such as how we perceive drawing the silhouette of a human, and expect people to know its various meanings each time). But that’s not where my thoughts are right now. Instead, this soon made me realise how all of these categories are abstractions the UI itself.

So, could we kill the icon? #

We have modern tech, such as multi-touch, at our fingertips, for users to gesturally provide their own “icons”; we have three-dimensional, fluid graphics, to provide an environment; and then we also have the power of language provide semantics. Maybe we don’t need a symbol to tell us what something is about to do.

Imagine letting go of the Xerox-inspired GUIs altogether. Imagine a native digital medium, instead of holding onto physical entities. It’s not going to be easy; but it will be the future of the UI.

Contextually aware, transparent user interfaces is what we should strive for.


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