For common functions, icon metaphors are well known and used quite consistently across OSes. Example, cloud icon with down arrow to indicate that data is being downloaded from a server/cloud/online storage.

In this regard, The "+" icon metaphor has been used interchangeably for both create and add actions but when both actions are needed in a user interface, how can these actions be distinguished with distinct graphical/ icon metaphors?

Here I am considering:

  • Add action is including an existing object from the system

  • Create action is adding a new object to the system

As this is not a new problem and common problem, what add + create icon metaphor combinations have been successful based on products you have created/tested or used?

  • Ken et al - I have reworded the question to fit more of a metaphor and best practice experience which falls in line with the community's posting you linked to with the TOP comment by Ben Brocka: "Good metaphors absolutely are a vital part of the user experience. By pretending metaphors are too localized in all context (they're not, that's why they're metaphors) we're harming the usefulness of the site." I hope you can reopen my question based on the community's voting for the usefulness of such conversations.
    – danielone
    Dec 7, 2017 at 18:06
  • Note, I am asking for intricate icon design recommendations but rather focusing on general metaphors which are parallel to CRUD design patterns, which I hope are allowed to discuss on this site.
    – danielone
    Dec 7, 2017 at 18:07

2 Answers 2


"Create new" has historically been indicated with a "starburst" on the new item (document, folder, etc.)

enter image description here

"Add existing" could use a plus sign on the same icon.

  • Adding to what stacy mentioned, 'Create new' implies that something is being created out of nothing (e.g. like the big bang) while 'add new' could mean adding something new to over what already exists. So for add the plus symbol makes sense and the starburst like icon works for create new
    – Blue Ocean
    Dec 6, 2017 at 1:41

Icons are metaphoric, but sometimes they're and need to be idiomatic. That means that you consider the user will learn to recognize them. Indeed, only expert users will know by heart how a tool icon looks like, and others will be able to recognize them only by seeing them (e.g. the bold, italic button).

A counter example is icons in Photoshop: "what the hell is a lasso" said my teacher talking about this icon which doesn't mean anything at a first hand.

That is to say that, sure, your icon needs to be recognizable and simple for the user. Don't try to complicate it.

Here is an abstract of About Face (Cooper, 4th edition, 2014).

Hope I helped you.

About Face (Cooper, 4th edition, 2014)

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