Obsolete Iconography? What gives?

I’m sure it surprises no one to hear that I follow designers, agencies, studios, typographers,  basically people interested in, and therefore writing about, design.

Mostly it’s what makes my twitter feed worth looking at, but the other day I read someones post that really made me pause. It’s pretty innocuous in that it deals with the changing of the guard in terms of socially/culturally relevant iconography, but it’s also equally dangerous in its ‘this choice is better’ suggestions.

Maybe this is what happens when the industry of design becomes overly commoditized, or perhaps this is simply what happens when an entire industry becomes viewed through the x-ray machine that is the internet. Just because you can see the parts, does not mean you understand how they’re working.

Iconography is not an exploration in object-to-occupation correlation. It’s a way for designers to communicate succinctly, across a HUGE number of factors: cultural, societal, language, age, gender, or handicap.

It’s a deliciously challenging task, and one that’s hardly ever taken lightly– if ever taken lightly at ALL. They’re steeped in the connotative-denotative lagoon that is subjective language. It’s powerful, enjoyably mentally taxing, and not at all solvable by a google image search. Creating iconography is challenging. It’s not just a matter of making a cute twitter bird and calling it customized (it’s not), it’s a matter of communicating vast amounts of subjective information incredibly simply. Like, 16px x 16px simply.

To read this list of ‘use this, not that’, you’d think that the best set of icons were branded Apple products & entities. Now THAT is a scary thought.

Here’s what I’m hearing:”Designers shouldn’t try to solve what could be a better execution for ‘saving files’ than a floppy disk, not because it wouldn’t be an amazing exercise in conceptual thought and societal observations, but because a usb drive is ‘what we use every day’ “– completely ignoring that the shape of the drive is a useless attempt at an icon.”

What can I say? I’m a firm believer that icons should actually use more negative space than color separation. It goes back to the ‘ICONS SHOULD BE SIMPLE’ ethos that’s been burnished into my brain matter. Designers aren’t taught icons are supposed to be images firmly cemented within our daily use, they’re taught to maneuver between meanings to construct a symbol, ideogram, pictogram that leads the viewer to a pre-destined conclusion.

To this point, I’ll direct you all to #6: Telephones

“More and more, many households are exchanging landlines for mobile phones. In fact, many young users may not even know what an old- fashioned home phone looks like. There are so many excellent mobile phone icons out there, so why wouldn’t you replace telephone icons with these?”

20-outdated-icons 21-outdated-icons

For one, because they’re branded Apple products, and not a carefully executed visual solution aimed to communicate. Using a ‘phone’ as an icon is not necessarily “phone” specific: it’s connection, contact, reaching out, being reached out to, hearing, speaking, networking. A sense of “together”, company, conversation.  It’s a world and a wealth of information, and not just because one company created a computer that fits in your pockets to make (and drop) phone calls.

Another reason could be that the second one is an iPod.

When you write for designers, especially about design, it’s imperative you take the steps to understand what you are writing about. It’s not that these objects are necessarily outdated (note Apple’s Calendar’s desk blotter), it’s that they speak to a feeling the application/program is aiming to portray.

Just writing a post about how designers ‘should’ use different icons without first proving yourself to be knowledgeable about the subject? I’m left wondering what should be treated more obsolete than that?

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