There’s a common but mistaken belief that proper user interface design requires lots of pictures and icons. In fact, it doesn’t. Many concepts and actions can be fully and best conveyed by text. While standard icons for directories and disks and the like can be helpful, custom icons for an application’s unique actions rarely are. The fact is, most icons are not self-explanatory; and if they’re not common enough to be standardized, they’re not common enough to be learned easily.
Nonetheless, many applications persist in creating pointless, incomprehensible toolbars. Icon design is hard. It is not something that just any art school graduate with mad Photoshop skills can accomplish. Icon design is about conveying an idea with pictures. not merely making a 32×32 bitmap look pretty. It’s hard enough coming up with a good icon for basic actions like cut and paste. Now try imagining one for “Analyze Module Dependencies” or “View Breakpoints”. There’s a reason Susan Kare gets the big bucks.
Lately, this trend seems to have seeped into menus, where text used to rule supreme. For instance, look at this File menu from IntelliJ IDEA 6.0:
Not only do the icons add nothing to the menu items. They actually make the menu harder to scan and read because the items are no longer left aligned.