Definition and meaning of the word icon

The word icon is often  associated with religious imagery and pop stars. The statue of the Madonna (Christ's mother)  in a Christian church is considered a religious icon. Madonna the music star is referred to as a pop icon. When speaking of graphical user interfaces (GUI ), such as a computer operating system, application or Web page, the word icon means a graphic image that communicates a function or activity.  Three definitions of the word "icon" are provided below. These definitions relate to computer technology and are from online sources.

icon - The Free Online Dictionary of Computing
A small picture intended to represent something (a file, directory, or action) in a graphical user interface. When an icon is clicked on, some action is performed such as opening a directory or aborting a file transfer. Icons are usually stored as bitmap images. [1]

icon -
1) In a computer's graphical user interface (GUI), an icon (pronounced EYE-kahn) is an image that represents an application, a capability, or some other concept or specific entity with meaning for the user. An icon is usually selectable but can also be a nonselectable image such as a company's logo. [2]

2) On a Web page, an icon is often a graphical image that represents the topic or information category of another Web page. Frequently, the icon is a hypertext link to that page. Typically, icons are gathered in one or two places on a page, either as separate graphic files or as a single imagemap.

icon - Kadow's Internet Dictionary
A graphical image representing a (usually easily recognized) function or control, usually reacts to being selected by performing some useful or entertaining action. A primary feature of most GUIs.  [3]

On this site the term Web icon is used to refer to small graphic elements on a Web page that provide a function for the visitor once clicked. A Web icon represents a large amount of information formed into a single visual statement. That visual statement is designed by combining signs, symbols, pictograms and ideographs. A Web icon isn't a banner ad. A Web icon is designed by combining graphic elements that often represent the action or attribute of the function it is intended to signify.

The most useful book for creating icons is The Icon Book by William Horton. The book discusses how to design icons pixel by pixel, it is one of the best books in the field. Horton recommends designing a coordinated set of icons. By doing so, design time can be reduce and a consistent, more distinctive style result. [4] The resources contains many useful references for understanding the principles of icon design.

Web icons do not have the fully capabilities of computer operating system icons. This is due to the nature of Web technologies and their inherent limitations. In the computer, dragging a small graphic representing a document to a graphic in the form of a trash can deletes or removes the file. The current base-level technology on the Web does not provide complete direct-manipulation of graphical elements on the page. In other words, a standard Web page which is made up of HTML and JPEG or GIF images, does not function like a computer operating system. Newer technologies such as dynamic HTML (DHTML) or plug-ins like Macromedia Flash allow much more flexibility, and while these are being adopted at an increasing rate, they are not the dominant technology.

References on this pageSources:
  1. The Free Online Dictionary of Computing
  3. Kadow's Internet Dictionary
  4. Horton, William. The Icons Book, p. 112

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