Application Menu Design—Inspired by Google (and their crappy GMail icons)

Last December, as part of a (controversial) interface overhaul, Google “upgraded” its buttons— changing their labels from text to icons. The idea was to make Google’s interface consistent across all languages, (and across all their products), and to make it easier to deal with functions that had long names.

Awesome, right? Wellllll. Maybe not so much.

WTF is the deal with those icons?

Gmail’s new icons are just confusing and frustrating. So, one afternoon Travitt and I thought if you’re going to make icons confusing, why not go all out? We pulled out the dry erase marker and scribbled all over Kandra’s desk poking fun at the ridiculous icons (and of course making them even more “un” user friendly!

And now, for your mid-week viewing pleasure, we present our over version of ridiculous file navigation icons inspired by the new GMail interface!
<enter sarcasm mode>


In interface design, an eye means generally “to see.” That’s why we selected the eye as an icon for the file menu because when you need to manage your files you need to see them. You can’t open a file until you see the list of potential files. You can’t save a file until you can see it. {This of course would never work well for the “View” option!}


For the Edit menu, we chose the question mark, which universally means “what do you want to do?” Do you want to copy or paste something? Undo that last dumb action you just took (HELLO GOOGLE – LIKE MAKING YOUR INTERFACE MORE CONFUSING?). Just look for the question mark. {Users will never confuse this with the help options!}


We decided to go with the folder for the View menu because in order to view a file, you need to get out the folder, open it up, and look inside it. {And of course no one will ever think that this is the file option!}


For the Help menu, good old wrench-and-gears was virtually the only choice. You need help; what’s more helpful than a bunch of tools? We know, right? Genius: it’s what we do. {And it never crossed our minds that this would be the perfect icon for the edit menu…}

Now to make it all the more confusing, let’s make the icons small! Oh, and don’t forget to remove the good old fashioned text labels (because our graphics are so stinking superior right?)

Put it all together, and here is the perfect menu for any application! TA – DA!

</end sarcasm mode>


Our tongue is sort of in our collective cheek here. But seriously, Google’s new and “improved,” icon set is really counterintuitive, especially when compared with the original Gmail interface and many of its revisions, which were such models of thoughtful UI design – attractive, functional and efficient. And when you’re powering through a weekend’s worth of emails on a Monday morning, counterintuitive pretty much means counterproductive.

The new look Gmail is pretty, in that Web 3.0 minimalist way that Google actually pioneered. When we first laid eyes on it, we thought “Hey! Nice.” But when it came time to actually use it, it was pretty maddening. It’s hard to tell what some of their icons mean (how does “!” mean spam? It seems like it would mean “urgent,” or “important,” or “exciting!”). It’s more difficult now than it was before to tell where in a conversation thread you are.

Obviously we’ll all get used to it (heck we could even get used to it if they used the wrong icons, but the correct text). And in the grand scheme of things, this is pretty much the textbook case of a “first world problem.”

In the meantime, there is a settings tweak you can make to put text back on the buttons and set the world to rights again.

Click the settings gear icon in the upper right hand of your Gmail window. This takes you to a settings dashboard. One of the changeable settings is “button labels.” By default the radio button next to it is set to “Icons.” Change it to “Text,” and save your settings. It doesn’t solve all of Gmail’s UI problems, but it does give you a functional minimalism that brings back a tiny bit of what worked in Gmail’s previous incarnation.

Updated Sidebar Quasi-Retraction – Google’s UI Doesn’t Always Suck

In the interest of fairness, I just got a new toy – an Android tablet (Google is behind Android), and the gmail integration is (as you’d expect) really smooth. And the icons make perfect sense. The Gmail app for IOS is also pretty well-designed, with logical icons here as well.

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