The "gear" icon: is it a convention yet?

13 Jun 2011 - 9:56am
5 years ago
4 replies
4107 reads

So we've all encountered the little "gear" icon for utility / settings / preferences / etc
Are we at a point where this is pretty universally recognizable without additional perceived affordance or labeling? 
That is, have any of you noticed people not understanding what it means in recent testing/feedback from users? 

andrew hinton /


13 Jun 2011 - 6:49pm
Dave Malouf

Yes - If you haven't been acculturated to it, you will be, so you might as well help them on their way. Will everyone on the planet know it? Of course not. But there is definitely a critical mass of people who get that the cog or gear means settings. Some people try to differentiate themselves w/ a wrench or like what MS Windows does w/ its "Control Panel" icon, but the gear/cog is universally understood as "inside the machine".

-- dave

14 Jun 2011 - 11:27am

I think it depends on the environment you use it in and who your users are.  Generally I would say yes use it.  You could accompany it with text or a tool tip on hover.

15 Jun 2011 - 4:48am

I am not sure where or when I saw that cog or gear the first time – but it’s for sure a bad icon, index and or symbol.

Alternative to this cog or gear some applications use an open-end wrench or a screw driver – but if I think about semantic – the meaning and sense of signs – these signs are really not self-explanatory.

The learning curve is very high – or in other words – the user is unable to read or understand it - the user is forced to commit the sign to his memory.

On the other hand currently I have no better suggestion or solution and I have to admit that I used the cog too – Sad but true !

17 Jun 2011 - 3:30pm

Rather than "assuming" that users would understand the symbol, test it! 

Use a survey tool like Survey Monkey or Zoomerang and invite visitors to your own website to visit the survey... You could present a variety of symbols and meanings and have the users match a symbol with its best meaning. See what you get... I think you will be surprised at how ambiguous are the symbols that we all take for granted.

Solution: ... you could include "hover-text" that appears when the user mouses over the symbol... that would reduce the ambiguity, as well as address accessibility problems... However, if presented internationally, you will have to address language differences... Good luck.


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