Icons - businesses' favourite waste of time (ref 63)

Some icons help. Like the ones at the top of the screen in MS Word. The Format Painter tool helps me quickly format stuff, and its ‘paintbrush’ icon helps me quickly locate the tool. A neat double act. I use that icon constantly.

Some icons don’t help. Like ones in most reports. Alongside the 'IT' section, there’s a computer icon. The HR section has a ‘person’ icon. And so on.

Icons adorn not just paragraphs, but bits of info too. A 'phone' icon alongside a phone number. A 'computer' icon alongside a web address. Who’d have guessed it, eh! Just pointless - after all, would the London underground map be better if we add a cute ‘train’ icon to each tube line?

Icons - businesses' favourite waste of time: got a report to write? Not sure what to say? No worries – don't fret over the words... heck, they don’t matter. Instead, insert icons. Fun. It beats doing real work.

Also, imagine we’re not the author but the manager that reviews the report before it’s circulated – and the report doesn’t seem quite right, and we want to help, but are unsure how. No worries… icons dig us out of a hole. We comment on them (from a position of ignorance too) – which to use where. How many. What colour. What size. “There you go,” we say to ourselves, “we’ve helped”.

Nightmare on Icon Street: I hear horror stories from clients. Meetings convened purely to discuss a particular report’s icons. Consultancies paid lots to create icons for a client's reports. Dozens of icons created and rolled out Group-wide... even one for humous (I shudder to imagine it). Crazy.

Also, consider this: good icons won't save a bad report. And bad icons will harm a good report - readers will criticise and mock them (I've seen it happen). OK, arguably icons attract us to a document - but then distract us from the content. Do you want readers to discuss your report? Or your icons? (Would this email be better with icons? Maybe I should show an icon to show how I feel about icons - but I shudder (again) to imagine it.)

But wait... maybe icons - like the Format Painter ‘paintbrush’ - help readers find stuff in reports. No, for two reasons: (1) lack of repetition: a report has, say, 15 different icons, each shown just once or twice in the report - hence we never get sufficient unprompted recall of each icon for them to help us. And: (2) lack of standardisation: icons mean different things in different reports. (If only the world could agree on icons... maybe we need a Global Icon Team (GIT).)

And, icon-lovers, don’t fool yourself that icons are intuitive. That we know what they mean without being told.

Quiz-time: Figure 1 shows icons from actual reports... but what do they mean? Give it a go, then I’ll give some help (and please forgive the image quality - rather than recreate dumb icons, I scanned copies of copies; also, they're in black and white to help preserve anonymity).

It's not easy. Icon A looks the Tardis from Doctor Who, and maybe icon C means 'strange alien'. Also, one of the icons surfaces in many reports, and means different things in each. I’ve even seen it mean different things in the same report. And even on the same page. I asked its author: “Why!?”, to which he replied: “I couldn’t think of a different one to use, so I used it again”. It’s as unhelpful as numbering every section on your page: ‘Section 1’ (“I couldn’t think of a different number to use…”).

Let’s make it easier for you. Figure 2 are the headings that appeared alongside the above icons. Can you match icon with heading? Send me your theories. Answers next month. (So far, four people have tried to match icons with headings, and the best score so far is: three out of ten. Can you beat that?)

So far, so bad. But icon-lovers are now angrily typing replies to me: "Jon, you're so NEGATIVE," they beseech, "don't just tell me what not to do... tell me what to do instead". That's next.

They say a picture paints a thousand words. Icons often badly paint one or two words. Or even one or two letters... here's a question for you: what’s the easiest way to help readers notice that a section of your report is on, say, IT? Answer: write ‘IT’. Obvious, really. Words… a wonderful invention. Especially in written reports. Maybe try them one day.

And if you really want pictures: if you fear people are so uninterested in what you write - if you feel you need distracting frippery - be gratuitous, like Logica plc was with its Annual Reports back in the 1980s. At the start of each Report, it introduced the year's 'picture theme', e.g. one year, it said: "We all work in buildings, so this Report has pictures of buildings". Just buildings. Another year, it said: "At work, we must look for small details, as do quantum physicists - this year, we've photos of quantum particles". One year, it excelled itself: "Work should be fun, and cartoons are fun - so this year, we've pictures of cartoon characters". Tom and Jerry. Tintin. Asterix. Inspired stuff.

Maybe try something similar. Instead of peppering reports and slides with icons, bung in pictures of different fish ("At work, we often dive down deep to find answers... fish dive too, so here are pictures of fish").

Or cheese crackers ("Businesses must sow seeds for the future... cheese crackers often have seeds, so here are etc"). Of course, readers might discuss your cheese crackers - so maybe stick to words instead, e.g. 'IT' alongside the section on IT.

That's it. No funny graphs this time. I reckon icons have provided this month's humour. And humous.

Want the answers to the quiz?

(If you don't, look away now. If you do, carry on reading.)

After I circulated the quiz in my monthly email update, many people emailed me their guesses.

And the result? Nearly everyone got none right or got just one out of ten right (and the one they got right was always the same one - more on that later).

No-one scored more than two correct out of ten. 

Which tells you something about how useless icons are.

The one that people got right? E - management responsibility. Perhaps a chair is a sign of great power. Maybe we should change the phrase: "With power comes responsibility... and a chair".

What to do next

The next time someone at work suggests shoving a few icons in a report or on a slide, send them a click-through to this article.

Do that, and you'll save everyone a lot of pointless time and effort.


P.S. a neat by-product to this 'icon' quiz: after I emailed it out, people emailed me back funny icons they'd seen. Figure 3 shows 'partnerships' - but notice how each circle overlaps with only two other circles. Hardly an effective partnership. Then there's Figure 4?!?! What was its author thinking? (Had they just watched Titanic...?)

Clarity and Impact Ltd | +44 20 8840 4507 | jon@jmoon.co.uk | www.jmoon.co.uk

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