Using the Standard Subscribe to Feed Icon

I was very excited when it was announced that Firefox and IE will be using the same icon to allow people to subscribe to an RSS feed. This icon immediately becomes the standard “Subscribe to Feed Icon”, which is a great thing all around.

Subscribe to Feed Icon

Matt Brett has created some high quality versions of this icon and set up a site which makes them available for free download (I donated).

I’ll be using these icons exclusively moving forward, and will be updating my existing sites to use them as I get the chance. And of course, we want to support this icon in FeedLounge as well.

In the upcoming alpha release of FeedLounge, we have already put in this icon for links to subscribe to comment feeds for items:

Subscribe to comments

and we’ll probably use it with the links to subscribe to feeds when we add the ability to browse for feeds to add.

As I mentioned before, the promise of this icon is that it will be adopted as a universal standard for “subscribe to this feed”. Icons work when they are recognizable and have a single meaning. With Firefox and IE on board, everything is in place for this to be a success – but for it to work, we have to respect the icon and what it is supposed to mean.

Recently, I’ve started seeing this icon used in a different way in feed readers, and I’m afraid that well-intentioned feed reader developers are in danger of tainting this icon and it’s promise as a through these other usages.

The first place I saw it was in screenshots for the upcoming release of Nick Bradbury’s excellent FeedDemon:

  1. This screenshot shows that the icon has been placed on the standard “Subscribe” button in FeedDemon. In my opinion, this usage is wrong. The icon means “subscribe to this feed” not “add a subscription and I’ll ask you for the URL in a minute”.
  2. This screenshot shows the icon incorrectly in place on the Subscribe button, but also shows the icon in its correct usage – as a link to subscribe to a feed in the list of feeds.

Nick is a smart guy and is unquestioningly a wonderful advocate for feed reading and feed technology – I hope he will reconsider the usage of the feed icon on the Subscribe button in FeedDemon.

Yesterday, I ran across this post in one of my “feedlounge” search feeds and went on to check out FeedShow. One of the things I was immediately struck by was the use of the FeedIcon. Again, I’m sure that FeedShow has only the best of intentions, however they are misusing the icon in both of the places I saw it in their application.

  1. The first place I noticed the icon was as the Subscribe button, just like FeedDemon. FeedShow has actually gone a step further than FeedDemon here and added a “modifier” icon to the Suscribe to Feed Icon. This is a bit of a double edged sword – the modification makes it more appropriate for its usage in this situation, however it also dilutes the meaning of the icon.
  2. The second place I found the icon was deeper in the tree control, as the “feed” icon. This is really a terrible usage of the icon. The icon means “subscribe…”, not “this is a feed”.

I’m not trying to knock the FeedShow folks – I’m sure that they have only the best of intentions. However, in their usage of the “Subscribe to Feed Icon”, they are actually damaging the icon’s usefulness.

This may not seem like a big deal, but it is.

Icon and user interface designers and even graphic designers are notoriously protective of the use of icons and “marks” like corporate logos – with good reason. A properly used icon/image/logo can be a powerful tool; alternatively, a casually misused icon quickly loses it’s meaning.

Street signs are a good example – when you see this:

One Way

You know that it means you’re turning onto a one way street. If the person putting up traffic signs decided:

Hmm, we want people to turn left here from this lane… what signs did I bring with me? Ah, here’s one – it shows an arrow pointing left, that should be good enough.

and put up the same “One Way” sign instead of a “Left Turn” sign:

Turn Left

the result would be people turning into the oncoming traffic lane and getting into head-on collisions!

I grant you that it’s unlikely anyone will die due to the misuse of the Subscribe to Feed icon, however the parallel is valid. In order for a icon or a sign to have meaning, it must be used in a consistent way.

For the “Subscribe to Feed Icon” to fulfill its promise, all of us (especially feed reader developers who desparetely want to make subscribing to feeds easier) have to be judicious in our usage of the icon.

It’s important.

This post is part of the project: FeedLounge. View the project timeline for more context on this post.