Visual Language for the Web is a book about the language of icons, buttons, and navigational aids used in the design of graphical interfaces of computer software programs. The first chapter deals with Mayan hieroglyphs and Chinese ideograms – writing with pictures. This establishes how much information can be conveyed semiotically. Paul Honeywill then looks at how graphical icons are used in interface design – and how well we understand them, particularly on a multi-national level. Some, like the folder icon, have been successful and are now widely used.
Others seem to be understandable only within the context of the program for which they are designed. Next comes an explanation of the design of icons, taking account of the psychology of visual perception and the technology of rendering images on screen. He explains for instance why colours and font sizes are rendered differently on PCs and Macs.
He offers an introduction to digital font technology which will be useful for anyone who doesn’t already know how serif and sans-serif fonts are used for quite different purposes.
To illustrate the principles on which graphic icons best operate, he presents two case studies of designing business logos. He considers pictographic languages ranging from the natural Mayan hieroglyphics and Sumerian cuneiform, to recent experiments such as Elephant’s Memory. But he seems reluctant to acknowledge their limitations in telling anything but simple narratives.
However, the very absence of any individual authority on the Internet means that any graphic icons which become generally accepted will be those which are commonly understood.
The last part of the book looks at testing recognition of icons – and comes to the unsurprising conclusion that the most effective and best known are those such as the magnifying glass ‘Search’ icon which appears in lots of different programs.
It has to be said that all this is sometimes discussed at a very theoretical level:
the day sign for Manik when it appears without the day sign cartouche in a non-calendrical context is chi
But this will be of interest to anybody concerned with the study of writing systems, as well as graphic designers, usability experts, and information architects.
© Roy Johnson 2000
Paul Honeywill, Visual Language for the World Wide Web, Exeter: Intellect, 1999, pp.192, ISBN: 187151696X