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Visual language: the use of icons in graphical interfaces

This is a summary of the research project for which I have set up this website.

The purpose of the research is to explore different taxonomies of icons used in interfaces and to discover what type of thought processes users facilitate while trying to understand the meanings of icons and interface metaphors. 

In semiotics the meaning of the term icon is limited to a representation that resembles its object. However in the context of interface design the icon has acquired a more general meaning where it stands for any visual representation that denotes a function or content type. Compared to semiotics it covers all the three major phenomenological categories: icon, index and symbol.

The main focus of the research is on digital interfaces, but some of the icons are not only used in digital displays, but also on physical controls. Many of the common icons also have a history that extends to analog devices. In order to appreciate contemporary icons it is also necessary to understand the history of visual communication that can be followed all the way back to prehistoric times.

The design of these icons, whether good or bad, has a huge impact on our daily lives. My aim is to provide valuable information about the effectiveness and usability of different icon types, which can help interface design professionals to design graphical user interfaces with heightened usability and legibility. As a research tool and a side product of this project, I plan to create an online live database for interface icons, which will hopefully attract the community of UI designers to contribute to the work.


The content of this site, if not otherwise stated, is shared under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 License.

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