Icons and Infographics

The Steve Jobs biography by Walter Isaacson mentioned that Steve Wozniak was originally against using icons whereas Jobs thought icons will be revolutionary. Jobs prevailed (what a surprise!) and rest, as everyone would say, is history.

Reading this episode however got me thinking and I could see Woz’s argument. More so, I think I agree with him.

A picture is supposedly a better substitute to thousand words. I can buy that. However, an icon is usually trying to replace very few letters, let alone words, in most cases. I have to process an image and interpret what it stands for, while I could have just read its prose equivalent.

A good example is a new task management app I was experimenting with. A swish to the left on a row exposed three icons. I am now stuck. I cannot be really sure what the icons stand for. I can take good guesses but that is not sufficient. I just wished it said “Share”, “Archive”, Delete”. No guesswork involved.

Some apps address this problem by providing a quick overlay tutorial mode to familiarise yourself. But, who wants to sit through a tutorial and not jump straight into the app? A better option might be to have a wordy version for new users and over time switch to an “iconic” version.

A bigger menace is infographics! The intention behind infographics is noble. Going back to what I started with, if infographics can convey insights that would have otherwise taken a thousand words, they would serve a purpose.

Instead what you typically see is a series of numbers such as percentages in large font, subtitled with some context, embellished by a seemingly relevant image.

Suppose you wanted to convey the insight “60% of smartphone users price compare while in store”. You would see 60% in font size 42, with a fragment of a sentence like “of smartphone users price compare while in store” below the number. Surrounding all this would be a picture of a smartphone with a “£” sign top of a shopping trolley.

You now have to process the picture hoping it brings images of a smartphone carrying shopper checking prices while shopping in a store. Half confused, you hope the numbers and text save the day. What you find is a distracting number in serious large font followed by tiny text that is left hanging in there waiting for few more words to make it a complete sentence. You finally piece it all together, a good two minutes later.

Simply reading the sentence “60% of smartphone users price compare while in store” would have taken just 10 seconds. You could have the spent the other 110 seconds in digesting what this meant for your business.

I’m not on a crusade against icons and infographics. I just don’t want them to paint words into a corner.



  1. I agree with you. icons are distracting and can mean different things to different people.
    Research does say that sentences rather than just brief words increase retention by a gazillion percent. check out beyondbulletpoints.com. his method does use this piece of research.

    to me, this is the order i prefer – Only picture (not decimated pictures aka icons, but pictures), a sentence with a picture (relevant is unnecessary, since the brain will forge connections anyway).

  2. Pingback: Stop redesigning ! | Stara 42

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