Two days ago a story was published on Medium by a designer named Aubrey Johnson titled Hollow Icons. The story was about “why the practice of creating or using hollow/thin line icons in a user interface is, generally, not a great idea”, specifically the impending change of iconography with iOS7. This theory rubbed me the wrong way, for a few reasons.
To start, the article references “cognitive load” after only three paragraphs. For those of you who don’t know (like myself) what cognitive load really is, it has to do with “the elements that must be processed before meaningful learning can continue.” Your brain needs to figure out what it’s seeing before you can understand something. Or something, I’m not a brainoligist. He then goes on to cite this document about The Science of Word Recognition, which says that the words we read are read as shapes. Tying all of that together, the article theorizes that too many of these “hollow icons” will tire your users and they’ll “decide they don’t like them.”
I find this to be problematic because this story is published on Medium, and it’s being shared as if it’s some kind of fact. There’s no data, no user testing, no A/B tests to back up this claim. I’m seeing this story go around like wildfire, and I’m sure people are simply reading it and thinking, “Shit now I can’t change my iconography, people won’t get it!”
Here’s some food for thought. Think about all the different brand logos you can identify. Think of all the different symbols you know in relation to traffic signals, wayfinding signs, or other day-to-day guide symbols. You’ve probably stored hundreds if not thousands of symbols in your head, so I’m not sure how a few “hollow icons” are going to completely confound you? There’s also mention of the 26 letters of the English alphabet.
The icon situation is a more complex issue than words sadly. There are only 26 letters in the latin alphabet. Icons are potentially, innumerable meaning you’d have to learn more “letters” over time to understand more icons.
While there are certainly a number of styles of icons out there, we tend to stick to one core symbol as the meaning for an option. What’s the sybmol for refreshing a website? How about the Wi-Fi symbol? Let’s look at the Chinese language for a point of reference. In average there are over 3,500 commonly used characters in Chinese, which sounds like a whole lot to me, but they seem to be remembering them all just fine. I can’t imagine that changing a chat bubble icon from “filled” to “not filled” is going to create an unhealthy amount of cognitive load for most people.
The real heart of what the article is saying though, without all the fluff and wanna-be research, is that your iconography needs to make sense to the end user, and I can totally get on board with that. I believe that you should make decisions based on function first and looks second, that’s the whole point of something being well-designed. Your iconography should be appropriate for the project it’s being used for. You could handwriting as a good example. Everyone’s handwriting is different, but you can probably read the word “bird” no matter how messy the person’s handwriting is. You could symbolically represnt a bird in a lot of different ways, but being making sure that you do it in a clear way is the key.
The final bit of irony comes from reader Jason Tasso, who pointed out that the author’s last shot on Dribble was a set of hollow icons depicting food items. Perhaps “hollow icons” are ok if he’s the one designing them?