Design Development UX Psychology

The power of universal signs

The power of universal signs

If you were using the Internet for last couple of months, you might noticed the rise of icons in web design. One very well known is the “hamburger” icon that is used for menu on sometimes as default and sometimes only for mobile devices. These universal objects are not used only in web design, they are all around as. Our world is almost created by them. We are in contact with them on daily basis.

In his great book Design of everyday things Donald Norman talks about artifacts in our lives. If you read this book, you already know why it’s considered must read book for every designer. If you didn’t read it yet, reserve some time and do it. It will give you unique insight and view on world around you. These objects vary from visual and auditory to touch. It is thanks to these objects that we don’t have to re-learn constantly some things. Take for example sign differentiating Men and Women toilets. Yes, this is what I’m talking about (not the toilet). This and similar are the universal signs in our everyday lives. Imagine that every country would use different sign for Men and Women toilets. I guess that visiting toilet would take you a little bit more time than before. The same applies for road signs. In some places of the world people drive on left and in other on right, but the road signs remain the same. Can you imagine what mess would it be, if every country or language has its own road signs? You would need to re-take driving lessons before crossing the borders. What a nice vacation!

Just recently, an article about the “hamburger” icon appeared on the web. It is almost unbelievable how much noise one icon can make. The reason is its wide usage. Web and interface Designers became accustomed to use it almost everywhere. It doesn’t matter if you have small web portfolio, blog, charity or international magazine or news. All of these types of website are using this icon. If you use your mobile phone for browsing, as +/-13% of all internet users does (plus another +/-14% for tablets), you see this icon almost whole day. This can piss you off or not bother you at all. Why to spend your energy and time on such a thing right? Not so fast.

While this may annoy you, you also can’t deny that you know where to look for menu or navigation of the page you are viewing at the moment. If this is true, then the designer and the icon itself accomplished their goals. Don’t worry, I’m going to talk about icons in general from now. The reasons why I picked icons is quite simple. They are, if done right, are great showcase for what functional design stands for. They are simple (mostly), clear, legible, easy to use, extendable and usable across different categories, platforms and even industries. If done right, they follow all the principles of “Good Design” which Dieter Rams proclaimed. Like it or not, they can be your light the dark road. They help you without you even noticing it. This is the reason why icon fonts became so popular in such a short time.

If I should pick one rule that is fundamental for any universal artifact or object, it would probably be clarity. You should be able to live and interact with environment around you without the need of thinking how something works. It should be natural you. This is also essence of a good design by my opinion. My definition of “Good design” is anything that, thanks to it clarity and naturalness, doesn’t need any manual or guide to use. This is how you can spot a really good design. If something need manual, it’s not designed well. It may sound crazy to you, but that is how I feel it.

When you are designing something that should be used widely, your aim should be to make it as easy to understand and use it as possible. This will help it spread. Take an iPad for example. You can give it to a child or even a chimpanzee (scientists already tried that successfully) and it will know how to use it. This is the power of naturalness.

Summary

Universal objects are here to help us live and work (no matter what your job is) easier. So, instead of complaining about some of these signs out there we should rather embrace them. And, if you still don’t like it, no one is forcing you to use them. The final choice and decision is, as always, left to you.

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