It’s great that a discussion of icons has recently restarted in the RSS community. We are in the process of figuring out what icon to use on our toolbar in IE7 to represent feeds.  

There are five parts of the experience for feeds in IE7: discovering if a webpage has a feed, previewing the feed, subscribing to the feed to get continual notifications of new items, managing the list of the subscribed feeds, and reading the feed contents.  The icon in this post is for the first two parts which shipped in Beta 1.  The icon is visible in the IE7 frame to indicate the presence of a feed for the current webpage.  Clicking on the feed icon takes the user to readable preview of the feed from which the user can subscribe to it.

The choice of what icon to use is challenging because it should be universally symbolic, but today there is no single icon for that represents feed.  Instead there’s a variety of mostly orange rectangles with the words “XML”, “RSS”, “ATOM”, “FEED”, or “Subscribe.”

Our goal is to make sure that the icon is something that is understandable by all of our users: novice, advanced, developer, business, international, etc.  These are the principles that we are using when selecting an icon:
  1. It conveys the important attributes of feeds: newness, activity, subscription, and continual information.   
  2. It builds on the most consistent and identifiable element used to represent feeds today: the orange rectangle.   
  3. It avoids the use of text.  Icons that have text do not generally work well for a global audience. For example, an icon with the text “FEED” may be cryptic to users whose primary language is non-Latin based.  Text is very important to support an icon (in tool-tips or accompanying text). In English, we will be using the verb “subscribe” fairly widely whenever text is appropriate.

We took a look at the prevalent icons used today but none of them fit our principles.  The Firefox icon is close, but it lacks the rectangular dimension (principle #2).  Here are some of the ideas that we’ve been playing around with:

    1 – We use a variation of the gleam to convey that feeds are updatable.

    2 – The ring illustrates movement around a feed.

    3 – This is a spark to show new information being broadcasted.

    4 – We use waves to show broadcasting of content.

    5 – This is the Beta 1 icon with our new requirements.

We have a couple of weeks to get the final design.  Please leave comments with any feedback or links to other good ideas!

- jane

Update 12/16: A decision was made. Check it out here. Thanks for all the comments.