Cognitive overload on your smartphone screen

How app icons compete for your attention.

Google s recent redesign of app icons has sparked a debate about the future of digital product icons.

Application icons should be as bright and colorful as possible. They practically jump at you from device screens. Companies cannot afford to have their products rarely used or go unnoticed, which provokes fierce competition for the user s attention.

Minimalism? No. Skeuomorphism? No thanks!

There was a time when super-minimal font-based logos were all the rage. A white figure on a black background often spoke of luxury and status. But those days are over, and we are bombarded to outperform the competition.

More colors!

More gradients!

More in total!

Recently, in an effort to develop a “consistent look”, Google fell into this trap by changing the icons of its applications. While brand consistency in general is good, now all the icons look too similar, which only confuses angry users.

Cognitive overload on your smartphone screen
I often come across this meme on social networks. And it makes sense

But trying to fit the complementary colors into a single set meant that the mail application was now just the letter M. The envelope to add context is gone. The Documents app icon looks too much like a calendar icon, which in turn looks too much like the Meet app icon.

The only icon that might fit into the new aesthetic is the Disk app, but mainly because it has seen the least change.

Cognitive overload on your smartphone screen

But the battle for attention is also being driven by sharp color combinations. If you re a UI designer, you probably know that you can t mix green or blue with red at high saturation. From this combination, the eyes begin to ache and bleed.

Just look at the border of red with blue and green. Pause and look at it for a few seconds.

And you know what s the worst?

These colors now have a saturation of 69, 73.79. If this trend continues, then we can see these amazing colors with a saturation of 100 units each. Probably, over time this will become the only way to “increase the visibility” of the icon.

Cognitive overload on your smartphone screen
The same colors with increased saturation

Then our eyes will be very painful.

Controversial Instagram redesign

It all started with a very famous and controversial redesign of a famous social network icon. In 2016, Instagram unveiled a new logo that was almost unanimously heralded as the biggest redesign failure of ALL TIME.

But you know what? People got used to the new logo very quickly.

Skeuomorphism disappeared in 2013 with the release of iOS 7. Therefore, Instagram s redesign was quite expected.

Cognitive overload on your smartphone screen

However, the new logo served a different purpose. With very bright and saturated colors presented in a rather unconventional gradient, it stood out strongly on the home screen. This highlight was also helped by the fact that a huge number of applications use shades of blue as the main color of the icon. Blue can be seen in over 50% of app icons on most home screens.

So the decision to stand out in a sea of ​​blue icons can be a great idea.

Cognitive overload on your smartphone screen

Apple used similar concepts in its icons back in 2013. It took everyone a while to catch up, but when they did, they went for broke.

The same thing happened with Slack, which had a rather colorful logo and icon, but the colors were subtle. The new redesign, like this entire trend, was aimed at maximizing saturation as possible.

Fighting for your attention

Four years after Instagram radically changed its icon, almost everyone followed suit.

Tobias Van Schneider recently summarized it nicely in his tweet and also gave me the idea to write this article.

So what is cognitive perload?

In cognitive psychology, cognitive perload is related to the amount of working memory resources used. – Wikipedia.

When things start to look the same, it s hard for us to find the right icon. We need to put in a lot more mental effort to find the right application.

Similar shapes, colors and patterns overwhelm our senses and memory.

Blur test

If you blur all these icons, you will see that most of them are almost impossible to distinguish from each other. They all look like blobs and are mainly composed of four colors.

Cognitive overload on your smartphone screen

The new Messenger app icon stands out the most, but only because it uses an even stronger gradient than Instagram.

The next wave of app icon redesigns will likely try to surpass that.

And yes – I am also to blame for this, I added a blue-purple gradient to the profile photo and to most of my images.

How far can it go?

Obviously, this trend will only get stronger. If Google is currently using incompatible colors, the next big step is an ugly gradient collision. Here are a couple of examples:

Cognitive overload on your smartphone screen

After all the good combinations have been tried and there is nowhere to increase the saturation, you will have to cross the line.

This is a struggle for our attention, and there is not so much of it left. Most people can t even watch a Netflix show without flipping through their social media feed.

The next logical step would be icons animated with convulsive flashes. Or maybe AR icons that jump from the phone right into the user s face.

The future looks … colorful.

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