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Recently I expressed to my father, who is in his mid-70’s, how it was ok if he became frustrated when trying to use his iPhone. “In fact,” I said, “given the world I grew up in compared to the world you grew up in, I am continuously impressed by your ability to work with new technology as well as you do.” Of course this usability across generations is by design. While I may be more familiar with modern visually-2D rounded off square icons than he is, it’s only because I was introduced to the concept of an icon at a young age when they still looked like 3D folders. We now see small children easily navigating devices that to my father still pose challenges.
Yet, given how fast icons have changed in just my lifetime, what is the true lasting communication ability of any particular visual interface? Icons may be designed to imitate buttons, but how long have buttons that we press been recognizable in society? 100 years, 150 years maybe? What is the half-life of a symbol?
While reading Kate Wong’s article on how symbols have been a fundamental part of human existence from the earliest of times, I couldn’t help but think about my father and a rather unique design challenge I learned of from the podcast 99 Percent Invisible. In 1990, a group of linguists, philosophers, anthropologists, and astrophysicists – to name a few – were convened to find a solution to a very modern problem: What symbol, signage, or physical construction could warn future generations of the dangers posed by a nuclear waste site?
The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) is the US government’s only underground nuclear waste facility. Once the site is full and sealed, the area will remain dangerous for humans for an estimated 10,000 years. Since 10,000 years seemed to be an unsurmountable amount of time to plan for, the commission was given the flexibility of creating a symbol or signage that would communicate the danger for only 5,000 years – a big break.
They knew the answer had to be visual and not language based because of the evolution of language. Yet some of the most fundamental symbols of danger held hidden challenges. The most readily identifiable symbol of danger was a leading suggestion: the skull and crossbones.
Unfortunately, even this seemingly fundamental warning it turns out was not so just as recently as the middle ages, roughly 1000 years ago. Back then it was depicted in Christian art as symbol of rebirth. It only became a widely known symbol of warning on the high seas when Caribbean pirates centuries later added it to their flags. Even communicating through a series of images posed a challenge:
This comic strip only communicates danger if you read from left to right. Reading from right to left a once hazardous area becomes the fountain of youth.
Beyond just an interesting exercise, I find it reveals how modern user interface design must constantly change. Additionally, no symbolic design can or should be taken for granted. Yes people have associations with certain symbols, but those associations can easily change. Just look at this swatch of blue.
In our current day and age, this color and shape immediately conjure thoughts of Facebook, but what about IBM just a decade ago? Or simply the sky? Our interpretation of symbols are constantly evolving. This poses at once a challenge for designers of user interfaces who must plan for their symbols and process flows to endure through change, but it also opens up opportunities for creativity. Is that shape really the most effective design for accessing applications on mobile devices? Is there another option that would be more space efficient and easier to understand at a glance? What if there was a more text based option for older users unfamiliar with the interface? Seeing these design choices as simply choices, to be built upon or thrown away, is freeing. I’m looking forward to seeing what interface I’ll be dealing with in 10 and 20 years from now.
Kate Wong, “The Morning of the Modern Mind: Symbolic Culture.” Scientific American 292, no. 6 (June 2005): 86-95.
99 Percent Invisible. “Ten Thousand Years.” 5.12.14