Warning, Warning! Danger, Will Robinson!

At one of my favourite sites, Infosthetics (see my blogroll), they note that the UN has come up with a new Warning Sign for Radiation. Here it is:

New Radioactive Warning Sign

According to the report, this symbol is…

the result of a 5-year project conducted in 11 countries around the world. the new symbol, developed by human factor experts, graphic artists, & radiation protection experts, was tested on a total of 1,650 individuals in Brazil, Mexico, Morocco, Kenya, Saudi Arabia, China, India, Thailand, Poland, Ukraine & the United States to ensure that its message of “danger – stay away” was crystal clear & understood by all.

It’s interesting to note that this symbol follows a bunch of the ‘rules’ of UI design regarding warnings:

  1. It’s red. Red is the colour of blood and is often associated with danger. This is the reason that I am always upset by web sites (like Webnames.ca) who decided that their link colour should be red to match their colour scheme. Red should almost never be the colour for your links, people! I’d even go so far as to say that red should be reserved in most UIs for only warnings or errors.
  2. It uses a triangle shape, which is frequently used in warning signs because of the sharpness of the angles, connoting danger or at the very least, unpleasantness (if you got poked with it)
  3. Unlike the old Radiation symbol (which is the three-sided symbol at the apex of the 3 figures within the sign), it has a verb in it! The arrow with the person running, which looks very much like an imperative ‘Go!’
  4. It has some scary looking lines that show the radiation. Although this is not a rule per se, it does illustrate some activity, which is a good example of how an invisible force like radiation can be portrayed.
  5. It shows the Death symbol, (skull and crossbones), though this could be misread as ‘Radiation can cause Pirates and make you lose your left foot’ if you wanted to be thickheaded/silly about it. (For a whole series of misreadings of IKEA warnings for comic effect, my friend Matt made up a whole slew of hysterical examples ).

I’m glad that they tested the symbol in countries like Brazil, Mexico, Morocco, Kenya, and Saudi Arabia, etc.. So often ‘Universal’ signs or icons don’t take into account differences in other cultures. I remember some years back something about Men’s and Women’s room signs not working well in countries where pants vs. dresses or skirts were not necessarily the sole marker of secondary sex characteristics. Who knows, maybe some Kilt-wearers in Edinburgh had to think for a minute.

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.