Icons vs. Textual Labels in UI Design ia.net

A very smart essay from Information Architects:

What does this [series of icons] tell us? Not much, except that icons save space and great icons look fresh. But unless you have designed and assigned them yourself, their clarity is suspect. An icon can represent a thousand different words, and that is precisely the problem. Anything with a thousand possible meanings needs a lot of context to become unambiguous.


Functionally, a “label-only” design is as clear as day (if the IAs have done their job), but something unsettling happens if you pull all the graphics from a graphical user interface. The temperature drops to 0° Kelvin. It doesn’t look crisp and fun anymore. A design positivist may not care about crisp and fun. Every other human being does. We tested this assumption in iA Writer. The feedback we got during the period we eliminated all icons was a resounding “Don’t!”

Way back when iOS 7 was released, one of my primary criticisms of it was its text-based interaction paradigm:

But this issue simply wouldn’t exist if symbols were used instead of text. After all, the OS X Mail client uses symbols for these same functions, and it seems comprehensible to me. I may be missing something, but symbols seem like a simpler, clearer, and more universal language.

This essay presents a compelling counterargument that icons are not clearer nor are they more universal. One may argue that the icons in today’s Mail for OS X could be designed better — whereby better, one means clearer and more universal — but I disagree. There clearly are limitations to how much may be communicated via a small icon compared to the clarity and directness of text. But, as IA argues, text is almost too clear, which makes the UI feel dry and anodyne.

See Also: Last year’s “Don’t Wash Tennis Balls”, which I’ve linked to previously.