Are Icons a New Thing?
Hardly. Ancient Egyptians used them to communicate all the time!
However, since 2014 icons have grown in popularity, in website design.
So, is this an innovation or fad? In other words, do icons improve usability?
If they don’t add clarity, i.e. no-one knows what the icon means, it serves no purpose.
Skeuomorphism adds Meaning
Skeuomorphism is a long established design technique. To communicate meaning, take something comfortably familiar, to represent something new and alien.
For instance, I designed this letter icon to represent email.
Adoption of More Abstract Icons
On the other hand, abstract icons are harder to understand, so less likely to become adopted.
In late 2013, I did some direct user-testing, to see if people knew what this icon meant. The location pin, indicating a map link, was still reasonably unfamiliar. Only due to it’s adoption by GoogleMaps and other high profile sites, was it’s meaning learnt and understood.