A computer icon is a pictogram displayed on a computer screen and used to navigate a computer system or mobile device. The icon itself is a small picture or symbol serving as a quick, intuitive representation of a software tool, function or a data file accessible on the system. It functions as an electronic hyperlink or file shortcut to access the program or data. Computer icons, in conjunction with computer windows, menus and a pointing device, form the graphical user interface (GUI) of the computer system, and enable the user to easily and intuitively navigate the system. Computer icons belong to the much larger topic of the history of the graphical user interface.
The icons displayed on the screen represent data files or tools accessible on the system. In activating (clicking on) an icon, the user can move directly into and out of the identified function without knowing anything further about the location or requirements of the file. On most systems, standard computer icons can be created and deleted, replicated, selected, clicked or double-clicked, and dragged to a new position on the screen to create a customized user environment.
The standard icons found on many computer systems and mobile devices have originated in disparate professional arenas. The power on/off symbol and the USB icon are examples of icons taken from the standardized electronic symbols and icons used across all electronic devices. Another group of icons was developed to represent different physical objects found in the office environment. This includes the icons for files, file folders and trashcans, etc. which were bundled into the commercially successful desktop metaphor GUI model first commercially available in the 1980s. A third type of icon used extensively in computer systems is the brand icon used to identify commercial software programs. These commercial icons serve as functional links on the system to the program or data files created by a specific software company.
The design of all computer icons is constricted by the limitations of the device display. They are limited in size, with the standard size about a thumbnail for both desktop computer systems and mobile devices. They are frequently scalable, as they are displayed in different positions in the software. The colors used, of both the image and the icon background, should stand out on different system backgrounds. The detailing of the icon image needs to be simple, remaining recognizable in varying graphical resolutions and screen sizes. Icons are by definition language independent; they do not rely on letters or words to convey their meaning. These visual parameters place rigid limits on the design of icons, frequently requiring the skills of a graphic artist in their creation.