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The Times
  • Frank Mulligan: Let icons be icons

  • My car was trying to tell me something. But I was too dumb to figure out what it was trying to say.

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  • My car was trying to tell me something.
    But I was too dumb to figure out what it was trying to say.
    It was communicating to me through an icon light that had popped up suddenly in the tachometer display on the dash.
    Icon lights that suddenly pop up are not sent as reassurances that all is well.
    There’s no smiley face icon, for instance.
    But this one’s meaning eluded me, which was troubling.
    It could mean the car was in imminent danger of exploding, for all I knew.
    Truth is, I’m icon challenged.
    I know this from my work with computers.
    I recently described an icon to a colleague that allows the user to turn online text into a link as looking like “a not-quite-round little globe that’s wearing goggles on its chin.”
    I don’t have any idea how a not-quite-round little globe that’s wearing goggles on its chin denotes turning online text into a link, and this is my basic problem.
    I have an inability to intuitively decipher how icons translate into usable information.
    Now, some icons, admittedly, tell their story quite clearly. In the world of car icons, the little gas pump icon clearly says, “Hey, guy driving, you’re low on gas.”
    The icon depicting a little oil can, with a drip dropping from its spout, is another easy one. It says low on oil with a capital L. There’s an almost plaintive quality to the little drip, reminiscent of Oliver Twist asking for a second helping of gruel:
    “Please, sir, may I have some more 10W-40?”
    But this icon didn’t have the sort of cave-painting simplicity I require.
    It showed what looked to be a fat exclamation mark, bracketed by parentheses with knobby ends on top of a railroad track in profile.
    Which meant … what?
    I was about to be hit by a train?
    I pulled over in a lot and parked after making sure there were no train tracks nearby, and consulted the owner’s manual.
    I learned that this icon actually meant that the tire pressure was low.
    I checked the tires, and sure enough, one had picked up a nail.
    How about that, I thought. The icon was right.
    But I still don’t see the connection between a fat exclamation mark, bracketed by parentheses with knobby ends on top of a railroad track in profile and low-tire pressure.
    Could I suggest another icon?
    Like maybe, a little tire?
    Frank Mulligan is an editor in GateHouse Media New England’s Plymouth, Mass., office, and can be reached at fmulligan@wickedlocal.com.
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