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When deciding on which icon to use in a toolbar is it better for an icon to reference the action or the object?

Example:

Action = Export data to excel. The object in this case is Excel (destination object).

Therefore should the icon represent 'Export' or 'Excel'. E.g.

  • Control option 1: '[Export icon] Excel'
  • Control option 2: '[Excel icon] Export'
  • A sentence needs a noun and a verb. If you are "telling the computer to do something", that is basically a sentence, or a command. In some cases, you can get away with an implied noun or verb, in others, you can't. – user67695 Apr 12 '16 at 16:26
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Both! Since you're not opening Excel as a software, you're making an Excel formatted file. But if this was a general action as optional exporting to a number of different output formats looking like "Export to [Excel|Text|Access|SharePoint]", I'd use just an export-icon since the next dialogue would let me make a choice of which output format to use for my exported file.

In your case I'd use an icon that represents both the action and the target, like this:

enter image description here

  • 2
    +1 both are needed for a complete representation of the function. If just the Excel icon were shown it wouldn't be clear what the action is. It could be import from Excel, for example. – user31143 Jun 5 '13 at 10:09

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