The Graphical User Interface

By: Somaiya Sibai

In this digital, age people are becoming more and more inseparable from electronic devices that they increasingly rely on for almost every function and task. We depend on mobile phones, tablets, computers, and other devices, along with thousands of applications and software to facilitate numerous daily activities and solve problems. This growing relationship between people and devices has been greatly facilitated by the graphical user interface (GUI).

The GUI can be considered as a language, a set of symbols, and a form of communication between human and machine. It consists of graphic, pictorial symbols that represent commands. Those pictorial symbols serve as a universal language that can be understood by almost anyone. They are laid out in the form of menus, tables, or buttons, in a way that facilitates working the software efficiently. Thanks to this, most people find it extremely easy to operate certain software or applications without any prior training or instruction. Many people self-instruct themselves on how to operate certain programs through trial and error, by experimenting with different buttons do and associating them with occurring actions. Through experience and continuous usage, it becomes easy for users to identify and predict what commands each icon does.  The symbols in a GUI can be thought of as “visual metaphors” that take the place of text commands. We “read” those symbols like we do for words. We call the left-pointing arrow in an Internet browser the “back” button rather than the “arrow” button, and the looking glass button is universally interpreted as “search” rather than “looking glass”.

In Peirce’s concept of the sign, he identifies three classes of signs, the icons, indices, and symbols. He defines icons as being similar to and resembling to the semiotic object physically, and an index as a sign that interrelates its their semiotic objects through either actual or physical imagined connection, while symbols are not physically related to the actual semiotic object, but rather create a certain association in the viewer, such as a corporate logo which does not resemble the signified corporate in any way but immediately reminds the viewer of it, and even emotions and perceptions they have towards that corporation just by seeing the logo. In the GUI, all three of those types are present. Some signs are icons, in that they physically resemble their respective commands or associated programs – for instance the icons of Mac applications like notes, calendar, and address book. Other signs are indices, they represent their function in a metaphoric sense, like the looking glass example mentioned above, and like the scissors symbol that stands for the “cut” command. Others are symbols, such as the logos of software and applications, which we have learned to recognize instantly, like the compass logo of the Safari browser.

How many of those signs can you recognize?