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I recently faced this scenario where I had to use 3 icons, for create, edit and add, respectively. The idea is that users will be able to create documents, add sections within the document and edit documents/sections.

A quick search on Google's Material design fetches this. I understand that the suggestion is to use the pencil icon as create while designing for content and as edit while designing for image manipulation.

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Often, different apps and services use this icon interchangeably for both create and edit actions. Is there a consensus or literature on when the pencil icon must be used, and how to distinguish between 'create' and 'edit' actions? (I understand that a simple + can be used for create, but in my case, I was using it already for adding sections).

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    My 2 cents, you can use them interchangeably but not in the same app. – DasBeasto Apr 5 '18 at 16:50
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It's important to remember that every icon's meaning is interpreted based on its context. For example, a plus icon in one scenario might mean zoom in, in another scenario add; a magnifying glass might mean zoom or search.

I've looked at a few apps, here's how I see the pencil icon being used:

Create

I've seen this usage in Dropbox Paper to create a document and in Signal and Telegram to write a message. In each of these, I found the meaning of the icon intuitive, in context it was clear that the icon means "write a message" or "write a document" rather than "edit". It's important to note that this meaning probably wouldn't carry across in situations where one doesn't write—e.g. to create a shape.

Edit

This usage seems to be more common. I've seen it in Todoist, Google Docs, and Camera, to name a few. Interestingly, it's used in Dropbox Paper to mean "edit document" as well, and the meaning is clear from context.

Take-aways

A pencil icon is useful for both situations, even though there may exist alternatives. It's important to make sure that the meaning of the icon is clear in context. As long as that's guaranteed, choosing a pencil icon for writing a message as opposed to a plus is similar to choosing "Write message" vs. "Create message" as its label.

Your situation

You may very well use the same icon for creating documents, adding sections, and editing documents. Or you may find that a plus icon works better for some items and a pencil icon for others.

Just make sure it's clear from the context what the icon does (and double-check through user testing).

  • +1 Some really nice points and examples provided in your answer. As you pointed out, the context will be important in deciding what the best design choice will be. – Michael Lai Apr 6 '18 at 3:30
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I don't believe there is a complete consensus or standard with these, unfortunately. I would recommend the pencil for editing. With create I would recommend a plus sign, as creating a new document makes me think of adding something new. Now, this probably conflicts with your create new section icon. Would recommend using a '+' on both of these but have imagery showing the difference between a document and section behind the plus sign.

For Example: An idea for create document - https://d30y9cdsu7xlg0.cloudfront.net/png/112573-200.png An idea for add new section - https://www.iconsdb.com/black-icons/add-property-icon.html

  • I recommend the same. + icon for add/create and the pencil icon for edit only. – Ren Jun 18 at 8:40
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I don't think you can get consensus on the icons or symbols because often they are context sensitive (as one of the answers suggested). In addition, you have to look at the specific icon with respect to the entire iconography or design language for the application, so it doesn't make sense to make a decision on an icon for a feature without considering the rest of the application.

Having said that, the use of a pencil icon when it is an application related to writing is going to potentially have more than one meaning whereas applications unrelated to writing won't have this issue so at least you can keep that in mind for your case.

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