The End of Icons.
“Skeuomorphism” is the term for computer apps that look like the real life thing they are based on: clock apps that look like clocks; DVD players that look like DVD players; cameras that look like cameras. And, the icons for skeuomorphic apps look recognisably like the most familiar feature of the device your computer is functionally imitating. So, in an Apple Mac, or iPad or iPhone: Photobooth is represented by a red curtain, like the one you pull aside when you sit in a booth to have your picture taken; Calendar looks like a desk calendar; Aperture looks like a camera lens; and so on. Now, I like skeuomorphism, it means that I can quickly identify an app on my dock. I know it works, because of the mistakes I make. I occasionally click on the iTunes icon when I mean to click on the Skype icon. That’s because they are both round, blue and white thingies. If Skype looked like a telephone handset and iTunes looked like an old fashioned horned gramaphone, I wouldn’t mix them up half as often (I’m exaggerating, of course. I don’t mix them up at all these days, I’m not THAT thick!). But that example shows what is the downside of skeuomorphism; it’s rapidly going out of date.
When Graphical User Interfaces first came out, they came up with the icon as an easily recognisable image. They caught on because they were user friendly for people who were not technically minded. But a lot of computer users objected to them for precisely that reason. They did not want their computer screens to look like a children’s spelling game; they wanted it to look esoteric and complicated. They were fiercely protective of their techie world; and that’s where computer viruses came from. Originally they were intended to sabotage those Windows users who strayed on to the techies’ turf, (I might even suggest Apple Macs have largely escaped the ravages of viruses for possibly two reasons: one the number of users is much smaller; but two, OS X is basically UNIX, so virus designers don’t want viruses out there that can attack any UNIX they might be using). Gradually, with a new generation growing up with computers, icons became ‘uber kewl’.
But there was a downside. Some of the icons were ‘unreadable’. What, for example, does the VLC icon actually mean? OK, it’s a traffic cone – WTF? In case you didn’t know, VLC Media Player to give you its almost full name, actually stands for ‘Video Local Area Network Media Player’. Is the reason for the traffic cone obvious now? No? Well, according to Wikipedia, ‘The cone icon used in VLC is a reference to the traffic cones collected by Ecole Centrale’s Networking Students’ Association’. Huh? Now, if I hover my mouse over this icon the acronym ‘VLC’ appears. But if I were new to computers I would be non the wiser. And, I’ve not just picked a particularly silly example. Just as horned gramaphones and desk telephones are becoming obsolete, so too we have to question the need for any icon. They are not always self explanatory and sometimes they are confusing. The Safari icon is a compass. But why does that indicate a browser? Wouldn’t it be better as an icon for a compass app? And the stamp for Apple’s Mail app? Does it indicate a data base for your stamp collection perhaps? The design question we should ask here is; what is the problem that the icon solves? The icons might be cute, clever, witty or even pretty, but informative, they are not.
Some of the newer GUIs have come up with a radical solution. They have panels instead of icons and the name of the function is on the panel. It’s taken decades to arrive at this radical solution. But maybe it’s about time.