Icons: A Dilemma of Design and Meaning

4 min readMay 29, 2023

In our work over at Fairpixels, a UI/UX design service for tech startups, we’ve navigated the evolution of digital icons. These once self-evident symbols have transformed into stylized, abstract designs. While this shift creates sleek interfaces, it can also breed ambiguity, posing a question: How can we balance aesthetics with user comprehension?

From the early days when icons carried inherent meaning, mirroring the tasks they represented, we’ve ventured into an era where these symbols have become increasingly stylized. While the evolving aesthetic contributes to a modern, sleek interface, it has also introduced a level of abstraction that can leave users guessing about an icon’s purpose. This shift invites us to ponder: How can we bridge the growing gap between icon design and user interpretation?

Picture a software IDE, the digital playground where many developers spend the lion’s share of their day. Its menu bars brim with various icons, each promising quick access to a tool or function.

Commonly, developers engage with the “play” and “pause” icons, running and debugging code, respectively. These symbols, deeply ingrained in our digital lexicon, hark back to early video players — a physical origin that makes their purpose intuitive.

However, imagine encountering a software update where these familiar icons have been redesigned. The symbols have morphed into stylized, abstract versions of their former selves. The “play” button, which used to draw on a universally understood physical object, is now a modern interpretation that shrouds its true function. The same holds for the “pause” button. Even though hovering over the icons unveils their purpose through tool-tip text, the cognitive ease of recognizing the old icons is lost.

This situation resonates with many in the developer community and beyond. It underlines a delicate balancing act in the world of digital design: evolving aesthetics while maintaining usability. We find ourselves at an intersection where we’re striving to craft new, visually appealing symbols without severing their connection to their intuitive, historical meanings.

In the nascent days of digital interfaces, icons were straightforward physical metaphors. A floppy disk icon for the “save” function is a classic example — the diskette was a physical, tangible object we associated with data storage. As technology advanced, the “upload” function was iconified as a cloud with an upward arrow, establishing a new, yet easily understood metaphor.

However, as we delve deeper into the realm of advanced technologies, like machine learning, we face tasks that don’t have a historical anchor in the physical world or an existing visual metaphor. How do you devise an icon for “load language model”, for instance? It’s a new challenge for designers, as these actions don’t have a counterpart in our physical reality.

This transition in iconography is more than a matter of aesthetics. It reflects a fundamental shift in our interaction with technology. Previously, digital actions were extensions of our physical ones, but as technology evolves, these two worlds are diverging. As designers, we must create new metaphors for abstract actions, questioning and reshaping conventional icon design norms.

Moreover, users, too, must adapt to this shift. Navigating away from familiar, physically-rooted metaphors will certainly introduce a learning curve. But as with any transformative change, adaptation is crucial for progress.

The challenge for crafting icons for the next wave of technology is exciting. As designers, our goal isn’t to just create aesthetically pleasing icons, but more importantly, finding new metaphors that resonate with users and effectively communicate function.

Let’s look back at the story of Susan Kare, who designed the user-friendly icons for the original Macintosh. Her designs weren’t just visually pleasing, they were, above all, meaningful and intuitive. They carried a clarity of purpose, a directness that enabled users to understand and interact with the Macintosh efficiently. The technology was groundbreaking at the time, yet she found icons that enhanced the usability of the (then) groundbreaking tech.

Drawing inspiration from Kare’s approach, we should aim to create icons that offer more than just surface-level appeal. Our challenge lies in going beyond the aesthetic, to unearth new metaphors that give life to complex functions, crafting icons that users can intuitively connect with.

As you craft or look for icons for your next project, begin with identifying meaningful metaphors before considering aesthetic appeal. Place function and intuitiveness at the core of your design process.

Who knows?

Maybe… Your next icon set might just stand the test of time and become as timeless and iconic as the work of Susan Kare.

Fairpixels — We’ve designed stuff for world-class tech startups.