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I wonder when (if at all) it is appropriate to use icons next to menu entries (drop down menus, right click contextual menus etc).

I have noticed that pretty much all of the menus I have seen only uses text, wouldn't these lists be easier to scan if icons were present to differentiate the menu items from each other?

Further - in the seldom cases I've seen where icons are used in menus, I've noticed that those are in grayscale. Wouldn't colors make those icons even easier to differentiate from each other?

I mean - icons are used everywhere else, why are menus pretty much excluded?

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2 Answers 2

I believe that by adding icons to all of the menu items would make it hard to scan and hard to navigate.

Why is that? Well icons have meaning, unfortunately the meaning is not universal, people from different backgrounds and cultures would interpret the icons differently so instead of reading the menu and clicking a right menu item. myth-icons-enhance-usability

The user will be distracted with the array of icons and colours and then they have to scan the menu either for a familiar icon and then read the text next to it to make sure that they have chosen the right menu item, or they have to overlook the icons and go for text.

Also on my Chrome I have extensions like Pocket, Evernote and Stylebot installed and the icons are very helpful!

Chrome with a few icons:

enter image description here

Now take a look at what would happen if chrome by default would have their menu full of icons! Chrome full of icons

As you can see 2nd menu didn't make it any better actually I think it looks overly complicated, also if you look at items like "Translate to English", page source are almost impossible to understand without reading the text. Also try reading the menu, you will notice that icons are shouting and demand your attention.

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+1 Great example –  JohnGB Mar 7 '13 at 10:41

As for color, use system defaults whenever possible. I have setup my color scheme with colors I like, so its 100% preference. But someone with color-blindness might not like your color selection at all! Line seperators, and maybe one or two universal icons would be OK. But you need to make sure they scale well for odd resolutions too. What looks great on your 1200 x 900 display might kill the menu attraction at 800 x 640 or 1600 x 1200

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