Clarity vs Aesthetics: The RSS Icon
May 15, 2008
THE RSS HEADACHE
I spent an hour trying to put an RSS button on my page.
After googling, Wikipedia-ing, FAQ-ing, calling friends and yanking out my hair (in that order, yes. Interesting how internet help comes before human help, eh?), I finally stumbled on the right wordpress page with instructions to answer my prayer.
Then, I had another problem:
Did I want the usual orange RSS button?
Or did I want a green, blue, red, grey, purple one?
And if I wanted a green RSS button,
did I want an olive-green, light-green, emerald-green, or teal one?
Not forgetting, would I like that in a
Small / Med / Large size?
Talk about overwhelming choices, and that was before I discovered all the custom-made ones out there.
RSS ICON ORIGIN CURIOSITY
Who designed the orange RSS/Atom feed icon we know so well today?
Initially, I assumed it was a proprietary logo of the creators of RSS. I thought there was a company called RSS or Feed Co. or something like that. Guess I’m lacking in tech history.
Turns out that it was first used in Mozilla Firefox…
Which is under Mozilla Corporation,
Which used to be Mozilla Organization
Which was created by Netscape – where Ramanthan Guha created the first version of RSS.
So perhaps my guess wasn’t so far off the mark! )
…. and subsequently was adopted by Microsoft IE in 2005 and Opera in 2006, turning the orange square with radiating waves into the industry standard.
For the life of me, I couldn’t find who in Mozilla designed it, but my searches churned out more interesting questions:
Why this icon? Does it work well?
THE RSS ICON DEBATE
Although many agree that a consistent RSS feed icon across browsers is a good thing, they’re not so certain whether this was the best. The point of contention: Does it clearly represent RSS?
In order to recognise the icon, one already has to be familiar with RSS or seen it before. If not, a new-user’s common associations to might be “volume”, “audio” or “radio” as P.J. Onori points out.
So, which should take more priority in the design? Clarity or aesthetics?
Safari opts for the former, with its unmistakable blue-white tag of “RSS”. Simple, clear and functional, but also a tad boring.
While on the other end, we have our little orange square: a rather stylish and clean design, but unclear and non-specific.
My take is it depends on which stage of awareness or popularity the product (in this case, feeds) enjoys.
It’s like how Nike used to brand its swoosh with its name, but as it grew in renown over the years, dropped “Nike” for a sleeker design of the solo swoosh.
A logo or icon has to be clear in a product’s beginning stages, for both the purpose of building awareness and creating right associations. One shouldn’t have to second guess what the product or brand is called, even if they’re not too sure what it really is.
Personally, I do like the RSS orange icon, and to me, its radiating waves represent broadcasting – a great analogy for feeds. However, I do agree that as a first-time user, I would have no idea what on earth the button’s for.
Some designers have already solved the problem: Just add the two together.
At least this way, even if one doesn’t know what RSS is, he/she can still look up the 3 letters to find out what it’s all about, rather than sit and scratch their head or worse, ignore it all together. It’d be great to watch the use of feeds propagate. Perhaps Microsoft will pick it up soon.
In the meantime, the standard RSS icon looks here to stay; though standard may be a misnomer with all these fantastic variations (from Smashing Magazine) zipping around.