The Goal: To explore how little screen real estate an icon may require to convey its intended message.
The Scenario: If you've ever tried to design your own icons for an application, you will have discovered that for most of us this can be more difficult than initially expected. The results often seem not quite satisfying, and when shown in a demo are almost invariably accompanied by the apologetic disclaimer "I'm not an artist." But the purpose of an icon is to convey a message, usually within a specific domain known in advance to the user and which limits the possible interpretations. A realistic rendering isn't necessarily a prerequisite to success in such situations, but we would like to keep our icons small while still ensuring their usefulness because screen real estate is a scarce and precious commodity (especially where today's rapidly proliferating hand-held devices are concerned).
A few years ago, Professor Steven L. Tanimoto of the University of Washington proposed what he called the "Game of Adumbration" as a mechanism for exploring certain issues relating to icon design. Students first design minimalistic--that is, ridiculously small--icons for groups of related images. Then you swap with one another and each tries to guess the meanings of the other's icons. Since everybody was trying to represent the same information iconically, the set of possible interpretations is known in advance; furthermore, the small size of the images rules out any attempt at realistic rendering. Statistics can be collected for icons of various sizes, to see how well they fulfilled their intended purpose. The icons themselves can also be analyzed, to see whether any common patterns can be discerned in the designs.
What To Do: This exercise is a bit different from the ones we've done previously, because to play the Game of Adumbration each of you should work independently. This handout consists of 3 separate sheets. On the back of these instructions you will find a list of Concepts for Icons, along with spaces for you to fill out an Answer Key for your icons, and a place to tabulate your experimental Results.
You will draw two sets of icons using only black and white for the pixel colors. Use the grids on the front side of the Questionnaire sheet to design icons of size 3 pixels x 3 pixels for the terms in each of the groups ("contexts") shown in the list of Concepts for Icons. Then, use the grids on the back of the Questionnaire to design icons of size 5 pixels x 7 pixels for the same concepts. Do not "cheat" by making some of your icons look like a letter! But do be sure to scatter each group of icons around randomly within the line allocated to that group, so your subjects (Tanimoto's "visionaries") in the experimental phase to follow won't know which icon represents which concept (WARNING: Do not scatter icons from any one group across multiple lines). And as you draw your icons, be sure to fill in the appropriate serial numbers on your Answer Key so you'll remember for each group which of your images represents what concept!!!
In the experimental phase of the game which now commences, you will use the Answer Sheet to record your classmates' guesses for the meanings of your icons. Note that this form contains spaces for four subjects and is printed on both sides. Pair off with one of your classmates, exchange Questionnaires and Answer Sheets, and try to guess the meanings of each other's icons. Write your guesses in the appropriate column on the Answer Sheet, not on the Questionnaire! (You may wish to fold the Answer Sheet in half when filling it out, so that you won't be influenced by another subject's guesses.) Repeat this process with three more classmates, until your Answer Sheet is full.
Now use your Answer Sheet to tally up the number of correct answers in each column, and compute percentages. Compute the percent correct overall for the small and for the large icons, across all subjects. Before you leave for Spring Break, submit a report that includes the Questionnaire, your Answer Key, the completed Answer Sheet, and a write-up in which you discuss your findings.
Concepts for Icons with Answer Key
|3 3||5 7||3 3||5 7|
|Group A:||ON||Group F:||VANILLA|
|Group B:||KEYBOARD||Group G:||SUNNY|
|Group C:||STUDENT||Group H:||HOCKEY|
|Group D:||HOTEL||Group I:||BUGS BUNNY|
|POST OFFICE||ELMER FUDD|
|Subject||Name||3 3||5 7|
|Percent Correct across ALL SUBJECTS|