Iconoclasts 4: Four Israeli Design Studios Embark on a Mission to Redesign Our Daily Routines

Four design studios were given a mission: to create a new set of icons to represent some basic actions that we do every day – opening a computer file or folder, sending an email, playing music files and answering the phone.

Try to think of the last time you used a diskette or a rotary telephone − that clunky thing with the receiver and the curled-up cord. When was the last time you took a compact disc − you know, one of those flat round things − and popped it into a stereo to listen to your favorite band?

Although the answers to these questions will vary depending on your age, it’s a pretty safe bet that it’s been quite a while since you did these things. And yet, if you take a moment to consider some of the most common daily actions of the digital age, you might be surprised to realize that we are still constantly making use of visual representations of these obsolete objects. For example, in many operating systems, an image of a diskette still appears as the “save” icon. To open a picture or folder on a computer, you click on an icon in the form of a cardboard file folder. And to dial your touch-tone phone or answer a call, you have to touch a phone-receiver symbol. Also, many music programs still use a CD icon, and email is represented by symbols like a stamp or an envelope.

Again, ask yourself when was the last time you actually wrote a letter on paper, sealed it in an envelope, stuck a stamp on it and slipped it into a real, three-dimensional Israel Post mailbox on the street, rather than send your missive via the computer or telephone.

It’s not hard to understand why all these symbols from the “old” world are still with us. Elements from the concrete, tangible world have come into use in our new digital world because the former existed long before the latter. The lexicon of the digital world originated in the physical world: The work table became the desktop, the trash can even found its place on the computer screen, and Web browsers have names like Explorer, Chrome, Safari, Opera and Firefox.

The 21st century poses many challenges to the digital world and developers of a host of operating systems. One of the most difficult and important is to formulate a new visual language that needn’t rely any longer on images from the “old” physical world.

However, while such images may be out of date, it’s obvious why they are still used: The images are so familiar and so closely identified with the activities they represent that we would probably need a very good reason to change them. Moreover, even if we were to replace them with new, more relevant images, what will happen a few years down the road when these new symbols are no longer relevant? Not an unlikely scenario considering the speed at which things change, new applications arise, and the dizzying pace at which social networks come and go.

We challenged several designers to envision a new system of images and icons to symbolize some basic actions that we perform on a daily basis: opening a file or folder, saving a file, sending email, playing music files and answering the phone. Their suggestions range from minimalist icons that employ nothing but letters, to icons inspired by the screens of smartphones and tablets, which have generated a new language of touch.

RSVP Studio

RSVP Studio was founded in 2010 by a group of designers, programmers and high-tech experts. The studio is run by Niv Farhi, 32, who has a bachelor’s degree in communications from the College of Administration and a master’s degree in literature from Tel Aviv University; and by art director Idit Frenkel, 37, a self-taught designer. The studio has five other staff members. www.rsvpteam.co.il

“The assignment we were given demanded that we try to predict the future to some extent, and after a lot of deliberation, we came up with a number of ideas and design directions, and formulated a few conceptual starting points. The first was that figurative icons − like the icons we’re familiar with today − have lost a bit of their relevance, because of the revolution in media and formats, but also because of the user’s ‘education’ and readiness to interface in new ways.

“Other icons, like the ‘save’ icon, will soon disappear because they will be superfluous, just as they’re superfluous today in Google Docs. And finally, we believe that the action buttons we have today will be replaced by ‏(vocal and physical‏) gestures, and that icons will become secondary – a kind of safety net.

“In the attempt to create icons that will not become outdated, we stripped them of figurative, metaphorical aspects and created balanced and minimalist typographical icons. The inspiration for the design came from Swiss International style and from Microsoft’s new typography-based design language called Metro.

“In this regard, I would point out that as we’re talking about Microsoft here and not Apple, we believe that the near future of interface will entail variations on and development of Microsoft’s Metro language. We feel this is right.

“What we eventually came up with are icons that bring up associations with the first cellular telephones, with their large ‘dial’ and ‘send’ buttons, as if the interface made its way around the world with lots of hoopla and fanfare, and then returned to the same basic place, only in a more mature state.”