Elevators and Iconography

By February 16, 2006Illustration & Design

I ride the elevator at work twice a day: once to get into the gulag, and the second time to escape it. And every time I’m in it, I inevitably start staring at the buttons. Mostly I’m trying to avoid social interaction, but secondarily I’m wondering: who designed the open and close door icons?

Elevator Buttons Photo

This is a picture of the open and close door icons in the elevator at my work. They both have little arrow like things showing the doors either opening and closing, or, wait…is that closing and that opening? I can’t tell the difference. Either icon could just as easily be used as the other, which makes for an awkward moment when you are trying to open the door for someone, but it just keeps on closing (or vice versa, heh).

The first problem is the vertical line in the center of each icon. The assumption here is that the line represents the seam of the two elevator doors when they are shut (your guess is as good as mine). Your elevator may not have two doors, in which case these icons would make even less sense to you. So then if this line represents the seam of two closed elevator doors, why is it on both icons? At least one of these icons requires a visual element that represents two open doors so that we can start to understand that these icons are opposites.

The second problem is the shape of the arrows. The choice to use only arrowheads in these icons without the stems (for lack of a better term) ultimately confuses the action taking place in each icon. The vertical flat edge of the arrows and the virtual rectangular space they occupy makes the arrowheads feel like elevator doors. In the open icon, the two arrowheads are facing away from the center line, evidently indicating that the elevator doors are opening. But with the straight vertical edges of the arrowheads tight against the center line of the icon, the doors look closed and the style of arrow isn’t strong enough to counter this visual with the intended action. The opposite occurs in the close icon, where the seemingly large distance between the center line of the icon and the two straight vertical edges of the arrows make the doors appear open.

The combination of the above items makes the language of these two icons very confusing. The two icons currently read like this:

  •  Open door icon: the doors are closed, open them
  •  Close door icon: the doors are open, close them


  • Open door icon: fucked if I know
  • Close door icon: who cares?

Instead the icons should read like this:

  • Open door icon: open the doors
  • Close door icon: close the doors

The difference is a matter of information. The current icons have too much of it, and it’s causing visual confusion. Mainly the current icons are displaying both the current and future states of the doors, and we don’t need to know all of that in these icons. All we really need is the future states, the end result of pressing these buttons: “open” and “closed”. We already know the current state of the doors (they are after all causing us to choose one of these icons),  and we need them to be the opposite of that.

Good information icons focus on that one important bit of information, and visually relay that to the user as a representative of all the other information. These elevator icons are visually pleasing, but ultimately fail to communicate effectively due to an over abundance of information, and poorly executed design.

Ultimately, I can’t close the doors fast enough.