How Small is Too Small?

As I started to customize different WordPress Themes for this blog, I found myself at one point editing some icons: the ones that appear next to the date () and author (). These icons are 9 by 9 pixels, which is probably the smallest graphic that I’ve ever edited in a UI, at least something that was not connected to anything else (like the corner of a window or curve in a box). These icons are not really much more than a decoration, and frankly, I’m somewhat on the fence about them. They do draw the eye to the date and author, but I’m not sure that’s either a good thing in this case (since the author, 99% of the time will be the same) and because they do add a bit of clutter. Since they are so small, they are not clickable (nor should they be). Perhaps the might be useful as the holder of more information, like the date and time. This would be information that is not necessarily helpful to see all the time, but in those cases where it would be helpful to mouse over the object and get more information, such a small element might be handy. In that case, mouseable (as opposed to clickable) might not be a bad idea.

I thought that 9 by 9 might be the limit for icon size, and that this was so small that one colour (or black and white) might also be a rule. Although they are slightly larger at 16 by 16, the free set of icons from FamFamFam called “Silk Icons” are actually in colour. There are 700 of them and many of them are quite good. Let’s hope that a lot of people use them, as they provide some good examples of good icons on the net. I’m particularly impressed with clock and table edit .

Nevertheless, I believe that when you get below 16 by 16, an interface element probably is for display only. The only exception might be the arrows you see on heirarchical menus, and even then it’s connected to a much larger item (the menu).

Update: My friend Jan has noted that these icons show up as not much more than ‘dots’ on his high-resolution laptop screen. I forgot to take into account that as screen resoloutions go up (and more devices are miniaturized), one has to take this into account. So, I’m thinking that these days the smallest one can get in a UI element is probably closer to the teens or near 20 pixels for any sort of meaningful information. Unless you consider a dot meaningful, which it is at the ending of a sentence, like this one.

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