Too Much Icons Is Like Not Enough

Microsoft started the ball a long time ago by making an icon for every possible action in Office so you can put them the overcrowded toolbars. Then, on Windows, they decided they’d do custom-style menus and put those icons in menus beside each command. On Linux, KDE and Gnome followed did the same thing in a much more consistent manner by doing it for all applications, but added icons to dialog buttons. Now, Gnome will get rid of them. Good riddance!

I’ve always found icons distracting in buttons and menus. Placing an icon next to a text caption saying what the icon means is pointless to my eye: I can read as fast if not faster as I can decipher an icons, but the text is more descriptive and thus more useful. Having both icon and text adds pointless noise to a button or a menu item.

That said, an icon is not useless if it adds some useful piece information: a file or folder icon next to its name is perfectly justified since it can give a better idea of what it is. Same for a checkbox icon.

Neither do I oppose to icon-only buttons: they save space when needed, and are generally perform sufficiently different actions for giving them distinguishable icons. The arrows in the toolbar of your web browser for instance are a good example of this.

Having to find an icon for each button and menu command makes creating quality application more difficult. With Gnome, if your button doesn’t have an icon it’ll look out of place. On the other side, creating or finding a relevant icon for each button in your application can be a difficult task. This difficulty often results in suboptimal icons being selected, or identical icons for different task. For instance, what’s the difference between a “save” icon and a “save as” icon?

Someone in the comment of a OSnews article on the subject liked above pointed out that such icons are optionals in KDE, and shows us what it looks like with and without them. Which screenshot do you like better?


  • © 2003–2017 Michel Fortin.