Innatists believe that people are born with an ability to understand and comprehend language (Lightbown & Spada, 2006, p.15-17). The child begins with a template that describes how a language is supposed to flow. People later learn the details of language such as words, structures, and grammar. Noam Chomsky, renowned psychologist, challenged the behaviorist views with this theory, arguing that there is too much for a person to know to be able to piece together parts of languages just by listening to speech. This school of thought suggests that this language template is universal. Basically, all languages stem from this biological understanding.
In the English language, prefixes and suffixes can alter the meaning of a word. As previously mentioned, adding “re” or “un” to the beginning of certain verbs gives them a new meaning. Adding an “s” to certain nouns expresses the general quantity of the subject. Adding “s” to the end of the word “bird” changes the meaning from a single bird to more than one. Such concepts should be applied to icons to help improve guessability or the capability to estimate a picture’s meaning based on the knowledge of certain symbols added to or removed from the icon. An image may contain a picture of a pencil when it involves writing. The user may understand this symbol to mean to write or produce. However, if a set of symbols breaks this pattern, the symbols’ meanings become difficult to learn. Children learning the English language sometimes oversimplify, adding “s” to the word “goose” to represent more than one goose. The correct word is “geese,” but this is confusing because it breaks an expected pattern, thus hindering guessability. The word “gooses” would be an appropriate assumption based on the nature of the suffix “s,” but it is not the correct use in this case. Ruining the guessability pattern will also hamper user confidence, and the viewer may be less likely to assume a meaning for the next symbol presented.
One way to devise understandable symbols is to develop methods for consistency. Icons should have a set of agreed standards by which designers abide. Researchers are attempting to create a systematic approach to icon development (Dreyfuss, 1984/1972, pp.26-31). Symbols are a language of their own and represent objects and actions pictorially. Languages have several guidelines that give words clearer meanings. English uses phonemes and characters, most of which alone have no meaning. Such a system is the morphemic system of the English language. The speaker understands what these pieces of verbiage mean when attached to other words. Instead of having to learn the word “do,” “undo,” and “redo,” one need only understand the word “do.” The prefixes “un” as a form of negation and “re” to mean repetition have been previously established (Kucer, 2005, pp.35-38). This is how symbol developers create learnability within a library of pictures. Applying morphological awareness principles to a rudimentary iconographic library could form a reliable foundation for structuring other icons.
In languages, there are frequently inconsistencies in the rules. For example, adding “s” to the end of a noun usually changes it to plural. This does not apply to all words, for example the plural for deer is also deer. Some people learning the language will encounter difficulties when learning which words take on a plural form other than the typical appending of “s.” The silent “e” also causes problems. Some beginners add an ‘e’ at the end of many words when realizing that some words, like “take” and “make,” have a silent “e” (Kucer, 2005, p.264). This is commonly referred to as overgeneralization. This shows that people expect regularity in language. In order to avoid this inconsistency and confusion in icons, designers should recognize a set of uncompromising standards. As in language, some exceptions may be established when necessary.
All languages arrange characters in a sequence (Massironi, 1937/2002, pp. 62-64). Some languages are written to move left to right, right to left, or up to down. Each arrangement is readable without much effort. An experiment was conducted that involved changing the logical arrangement of letters in a word. Instead of the next letter in the word succeeding the previous, they were written in a spiral motion; the second letter would be written behind the first, the third at the beginning, the fourth at the end, and the pattern repeats until the end of the word. Therefore, the word “TOGETHER” would read as “RHEOTGTE.” Although all the letters exist in a decipherable pattern, the words are difficult to read for various reasons. The beginning of the word is difficult to spot because the first letter is hidden in the center. Another problem is that the reader must continually move left and right to read the word. The spaces also get gradually larger as they read more into the word, making it harder to locate the next letter, increasing reader fatigue. In regular text, the space between letters is consistent, therefore requiring the same cognitive resources to study each character. This obscure sequence also requires short-term memory, as the reader must strain to memorize all letters read over the time it takes to read the word and must remember which letter was read previously so he or she know his or her place in the word when looking at the opposite side.
The text arranged in this pattern is incomprehensible because it can no longer be recognized by the human cognitive system (Massironi, 1937/2002, pp. 62-64). This spiraling sequence violates two laws of fundamental psychology: proximity and continuity of direction. These rules are necessary to make decoding written information quick and effortless. The letters must be near each other and arranged in an easy-to-follow, continuous manner.
A difficult arrangement of letters also makes reading through occlusions harder (Massironi, 1937/2002, pp. 62-64). If part of a normal sentence was covered or had letters missing, human cognition may be able to compensate for the lack of information and decipher the word. If such an obstacle was added to a sentence using the spiral arrangement, it would be much harder to read. Basically, the spiral rule is difficult because it requires too great a cognitive load. If the reading process is more natural and requires less effort, the reader will have the means to read past the occlusion. The predictable flow of perceptual units allows the reader to focus more on the symbolic meaning of words without much visual cognitive effort.
In many languages, one word can have several meanings that change depending on the context (Massironi, 1937/2002, pp. 62-64). Usually they are separated into semantic and material groups. Saying “This is a glass of water” uses the object “water” as a noun. A similar sentence, “This water glass is full” uses “water” as an adjective to describe the glass. The word is the same but takes a different meaning because of context. The former refers to a physical object and the latter qualifies a particular type of object.
If one were to design an icon to express the action “Create Circle by Points on Diameter,” an artist can combine understood symbols to show the object, the action, and the method. The object is a picture of a circle. The action is “draw,” depicted by a pencil. The same pencil should appear in a different icon to represent the action “draw” also. There are several ways to form a circle in this program. The illustration shows two opposite points on the circle’s diameter to express the method “create circle by opposing points.” An illustration expressing “Create circle by center and edge point” will have the same object and action depiction, but the method would be represented by a dot in the center of the circle and another on the edge (Horton, 1996, pp. 371-372).
This concept is widely accepted as an appropriate means to create language. Several languages worldwide use this sort of repetition in order to improve learnability and comprehensibility. It also saves one from having to memorize many different words and meanings. Languages such as German, Spanish, and Latin change the end of the word based on the gender of the object to which the word refers. American Sign Language repeats symbols in certain words to clarify context.
Certain symbols are used frequently and usually conjointly with other symbols to change meaning. The results can be prohibition marks (usually indicated by a diagonal line or “X” through the original symbol), restrictions (when the icon is within a circle), warnings (when the icon is inside a triangle), and directional symbols (usually indicated by arrows) (Dreyfuss, 1984/1972, pp. 26-28). This thesis will test these semantics in the experiments by including them within certain symbols. The original symbol (without the modifier) may be included as a control.
Combining icons is a common practice. A symbol of a bird, depicting all notable physical features that make it recognizable could have a different meaning if combined with another symbol (Dondis, 1973, p. 72). If the same silhouette were shown carrying an olive branch in its beak, it would represent peace. Since the dove is a bird frequently associated with peace, viewers may identify the generic bird shape as a dove. With the addition of a minute detail, the icon’s meaning changes.
One study investigated whether Taiwanese computer users could correctly identify English-created icons on a computer (Wang, 2007, pp. 199-202). The test investigated the variables of computer experience and knowledge of the English language and concluded that knowing English had little effect on the ability to correctly identify the icons. Computer experience was the main factor. Some of the icons such as “underline” (depicted as the letter U with a line underneath) used English characters. A study of English users with little computer experience showed that participants had more difficulty identifying icons with English characters on them than their more tech-savvy Taiwanese counterparts. Basically, language was not the primary factor in assessing one’s ability to correctly identify concrete or combination icons. Regardless, using specific characters can add a variable and bias the results.
Young viewers understand the concept of combining different icons to form one with a new meaning. An author describes an instance of how people interpret icons differently if used with other symbols. Children identified skull and crossbones as a pirate symbol. When a bottle was drawn around the figure, the same audience described it to mean “poison” (Dreyfuss, 1984/1972, p. 142). This symbol has been accepted to represent mortality since the 16th century (Miller, Brown, & Cullen, 2000, p. 49) and has been embedded in popular culture, keeping it exposed to the public in books, movies, and music. This icon has taken on the meaning of death and destruction in most of the world but still holds a promise of good fortune in Tibet and Nepal.
Researchers have examined the interpretability of icons across various cultures. One study tested cell phone icons with varying levels of detail among Americans and Koreans (Kim & Lee, 2005, pp. 307-310). The conclusion was that Koreans prefer more concrete icons, while Americans prefer abstract. This demonstrates detail preferences among certain cultures.
Dondis, D. A. (1973). Primer of visual literacy (p. 72). Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Horton, W. (1994). The icon book: Visual symbols for computer systems and documentation (pp. 262, 245, 249, 260). Toronto: John Wiley & Sons.
Horton, W. (1996). Designing icons and visual symbols. Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, 371 – 372. doi:10.1145/257089.257378
Kim, J. H., & Lee, K. P. (2005). Cultural difference and mobile phone interface design: Icon recognition according to level of abstraction. ACM International Conference Proceeding Series, 111, 307-310. doi:10.1145/1085777.1085841
Kucer, S. B. (2005). Dimensions of literacy (pp. 35-38, 264). Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Lightbown, P. M., & Spada, N. (2006). How languages are learned (3rd ed.) (pp. 15-17). New York: Oxford University Press.
Dreyfuss, H. (1972). Symbol sourcebook (pp. 26-31, 48-53, 80-85, 98-99, 140, 208-209). New York: McGraw-Hill. (Original work published 1984.)
Massironi, M. (2002). The psychology of graphic images: Seeing, drawing, communicating (N. Bruno, Trans., pp. 62-64, 71-77, 141-177, 196-211, 216-221, 223-235, 260-264). Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Welbaum Associates. (Original work published 1937)
Miller, A. R., Brown, J. M., & Cullen, C. D. (2000). Global graphics: Symbols (p. 49). Gloucester, Massachusetts: Rockport.
Wang, H. F. (2007). Are icons used in existing computer interfaces obstacles to Taiwanese computer users? ACM International Conference Proceeding Series, 250, 199-202. doi:10.1145/1362550.1362590