Icons: using the familiar
Icons: objects and representations
An icon, according to Charles S. Pierce, somehow displays that which it represents. Pierce defines an icon as “a sign which is determined by its dynamic object by virtue of its own internal nature” [106 p. 643]. Arthur Burks further explains this definition by stating that an icon sign, “exhibit[s] its object.” An example that he provides is “a scale drawing, used to communicate to a machinist the structure of a piece of machinery” (qtd in Codognet).
It could be said that the sign (the image uses of the envelope) and the signified (the object of an envelope) share certain properties or are similar in nature, thereby allowing us to recognize the image as representing an envelope and conveying the sense of correspondence. Umberto Eco problematizes the notion that there is a natural connection between an icon and its object. Instead, he concludes that similarity between an image and an object is “a matter of cultural convention” (204). Thus, the image of a rectangle with a V in the middle does not innately represent an envelope. Rather, we have culturally accepted the connection between this graphic and the object of an envelope.
Icons can also become so familiar that they become a revolving
door: taken from popular culture, changed to be anchors, and then re-entering
the popular culture. At first these anchor-icons were pictures of real
life interfaces: hypercard icons show a finger with a string for reminders
and the Mona Lisa for images (e.g., Marble
Springs ). Then these gradually came to resemble computer
components (Him  is an elegant use
of radio button icons). Lev Manovich shows how this has gone full circle:
"I buy an orange and blue wallet that has two plastic buttons on
its cover, an emulation of the forward and reverse buttons of a Web Browser.
The buttons do not do anything (yet) they simply signify 'computer' [96.
Icons: images that represent a function
If the similarity between the image and the object can be understood to be “a matter of cultural convention,” then the connection between the icon and the function is even more so. There is no reason to associate an envelope with e-mail when electronic correspondence does not use envelopes. Furthermore the right and left-pointing arrows are inscribed from western book-culture where one reads from left to right. With a book, turning a page to the right, the reader receives new content while turning a page to the left returns the reader to previous content.
The functions of these icons in digital environments are
only similar to their graphical icons because we have culturally understood
a right-pointing arrow to mean “forward” and an envelope to
refer to any form of written correspondence (even that which does not
use envelopes). It is not that these functions are innately represented
by the icon but that we have come to culturally understand the connection.
When authors place icons as anchors in their digital texts, they are calling upon cultural codes for those icons to be understandable to their audience. They are counting on the audience to see the icon and understand the function it represents. Because icons generally represent common functions that the author wants to make available to the readers, they are usually (but not always) found in navigational anchor clusters such as menus or maps.