Are Icons a New Thing? Hardly. Ancient Egyptians used them to communicate all the time!
However, since 2014 icons have grown in popularity, in web 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. Adding Meaning
Skeuomorphism is a long established design technique. To communicate meaning, take something comfortably familiar, to represent something new and alien.
Here’s an example of an icon Ambrose Designs recently created. This letter icon(physical) represents email(virtual).
Getting More Abstract Icons Adopted
What happens when there is no obvious familiar physical representation? Abstract icons need to be learnt and, as such, are far harder to get 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.