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Icons and the FOSS desktop

Jun 01, 2010, 15:01 (0 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Bruce Byfield)


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"Icons have always intimidated me. Except for the mouseover help, two-thirds of the time I would have no idea what function they represent. Shrink them so that they fit on a toolbar, and the obscurity is compounded by illegibility. On the free and open source software (FOSS) desktop, icons seem to be one of the last holdouts against usability, with neither of the two main strategies for designing icons being particularly successful.

"Admittedly, icons on the FOSS desktop have come a long way since the early years of this century, when GNOME's logout button looked like an illustration from Goodnight Moon, or possibly a sign indicating an outhouse.

"That icon disappeared when the first usability study showed that people had no idea what it indicated, to be replaced (more sensibly) in many distributions with an open door and an arrow or a person passing through it to suggest to leaving. Similarly, when I open up the copy of OpenOffice.org that comes with Debian, I see icons for font weights, alignment and indentation whose functions are obvious at a glance. Other icons, such as the letters ABC above a check mark for spellchecking, or binoculars for search, are less immediately identifiable, but still more or less decipherable."

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