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Soeren on icons on menus

I just came across a piece on icons next to menu items. One thing it doesn't address is the added clutter, and the alignment issues between a piece of text and its icon (and menu items with an icon and those without them). I'm not sure why they aren't used very much on MacOS, although support's been there since at least System 6. Safari has an icon next to its bookmark items, and the dock displays little window icons next to the entry for a window in the dock menu, and there's files' icons in the dock menu for a folder (like in ye olde days in the Apple menu). If you insist, I'll also count menu icons, but there aren't many more. Windows is different here. Lots of icons next to menu items, and you also see that on ported apps occasionally. I wonder whether that's just historical, pragmatical (i.e. having to design an icon for every menu item is too expensive, and reuse isn't desirable here) or whether there's actual usability research behind that.

Reader Comments: (RSS Feed)
Chris Gervais writes:
I'm not sure I like icons on menu entries -- primarily for aesthetic reasons. The way I see it, an icon's role in life to fulfill the promise that a picture is worth a thousand words. We use icons in toolbars to quickly expose important or commonly used actions also represented by menu items. If that's the case, what's the point of placing the icon next to that item in the menu item? To reinforce its connection? Isn't that what a tooltip on the toolbar icon is for? Not to mention the descriptive text available when a user configures their toolbar (I'm thinking specifically of the "Configure Toolbar..." option for NSToolbars). The other issue that you mention is the practicality of generating icons for the many actions that present in menus. The other big issue is the potential for dissonance across applications. I would be a real shame if users had to make the connection between different images, in different applications for the same action. In my own little applications I try to reuse Apple's toolbar images wherever possible since I know I'll be consistent with the core system.
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