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I was jotting down some notes for a future project, sketching some simple icons for functionality etc, but all I could come up with for an icon to represent 'edit' was a pencil.

The pencil seems to have become pretty universal in icon design, but I think it's pretty outdated and it's not clear enough from a distance (it just looks like a diagonal line).

For 'add', we have the universal '+' sign, and for delete we have 'X' or '-'. I feel like we (the world) needs something similar for 'Edit'.

I saw the similar post on here about the 'Save' icon not being a disk, and found it really fascinating. But what about the pencil?

I've been thinking about this now for a few days, but I can't think of anything. Can anyone else?

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I like the replies so far! I don't feel like I'm being a total idiot for missing something obvious any more, lol. I think it's because the 'X' and '+' are made of two simple lines. There's no equivalent shape or basic symbol that represents editing... is there? –  Dave Houlbrooke Apr 12 '12 at 16:13
    
There are better ways to do pencil icons than the diagonal line type, here's an example findicons.com/icon/168686/graphic_design?id=406988 but I agree, we need something better! –  user568458 Apr 12 '12 at 16:15
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p.s. what type of thing is being editted in your case? –  user568458 Apr 12 '12 at 16:16
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@DaveHoulbrooke: A Delta is three simple lines! ;) –  FrustratedWithFormsDesigner Apr 12 '12 at 20:13
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The Save icon is a disc because it's a metaphor that's understood, trying to replace it (and the pencil icon) to "modernize it" misunderstands the concept. –  Ben Brocka Apr 13 '12 at 20:12
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4 Answers

In a personal project (project management/to-do list) that I run locally I decided to design and use the infinity symbol ∞ (obviously a little larger a better looking). The decision was based on the concept that you can edit items an infinite amount of times, of course unless your code/project/design/application otherwise calls for logic that says otherwise.

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One of the classic difficulties in icon design is that you need to think the other way round: the thought process needs to be image ⇒ concept, not concept ⇒ image. You can go from "Edit" to ∞ via the fact that things can be edited ∞ times - but does it go the other way? I doubt that someone seeing a ∞ would think "Okay, ∞, infinity... hmm... what can be done infinite times? I know, editing!" –  user568458 Jan 14 at 13:22
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If you want to stick with simple symbols, such as +, -, x, why not use Δ? "Delta" for "Change", because when you Edit something, you're going to change it. Of course, I don't think I've ever seen this in use for this purpose before so people might not be used to it.

I suppose another option would be a stylized "E" (or maybe "ED"), for Edit. Not very original, but probably with clearer meaning than Δ.

Other less-common "Edit" symbols I've seen:

  • A lightning bolt - I guess because when you change something, you're "zapping" it. Of course, I first thought that the lightning bolt meant "Zap this thing out of existence!", so it didn't win any points for meaning. But it was a simple symbol to render.

  • A magic wand - Again, I think it was to imply doing something, in a generic sort of way. As a symbol, it was even less distinct looking than a pencil.

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Δ is not "change". It's "difference" in math. So actually it'd say »I want to make a difference«, which feels kind of strange to me. Not downvoting, as it's an interesting approach. Sidenote: It's a triangle with a thicker border on the left, so the "difference" is hidden in there and won't be visible on small screens. –  kaiser Apr 13 '12 at 9:13
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This would be completely unintuitive I think - clever for clever's sake –  UpTheCreek Apr 13 '12 at 12:00
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@kaiser: I have heard expressions such as "ΔV = ..." read aloud as "change in velocity equals..." as well as "difference in velocity equals..." Not sure which is more commonly used. –  FrustratedWithFormsDesigner Apr 13 '12 at 13:45
    
As I'm a technical engineer, I can tell you one thing for sure: In tech terms, it's difference :) So if you're comparing two values/shapes, etc. then you're using the triangle. –  kaiser Apr 13 '12 at 14:36
    
@kaiser: Yes, and now that I think about it, one code editor I know uses Delta-symbol to start a code comparison... But I still think it could work. –  FrustratedWithFormsDesigner Apr 13 '12 at 14:43
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Iconography is typically context centric. What is the app? What are the other icons? Who's using the app? How big are the icons? What device are they being used on? What kind of content is being edited?

I think the pencil is a fine icon. Yes, it's not a literally accurate one, but has become a defacto standard over the decades and most folks understand what it represents.

UPDATE

If restricted to simple symbols, I think + makes perfect sense for add, - for remove. Keeping with that theme, I think @FrustratedWithFormsDesig is spot-on recommending Δ. Alas, as stated, it's not common, so would likely take you back to figuring out a more common option.

In the realm of mathematical symbols, there's lots of options:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_mathematical_symbols

But, alas, like the delta, they are all rather obscure for the average user.

What if you thought of what an edit does? What do pencils do when editing? I'm thinking maybe a scribble or a strike-through or other some sort of proofreading mark, perhaps?

http://www.merriam-webster.com/mw/table/proofrea.htm

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So far I'm just making notes in a notebook. I'm thinking about application design, and how generally you add, remove, and change things. Add and remove have their simple symbols (+ and X), but edit doesn't. –  Dave Houlbrooke Apr 12 '12 at 16:15
    
The catch is that there's only so many of the simple symbols out there. If you only need 2-3 icons, I can see a want for that. But typically you need more than that, and at some point one needs to go beyond the simple mathematical type symbols. It's an interesting challenge, for sure. I'll edit my answer with some more info. –  DA01 Apr 12 '12 at 18:53
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Some maybe fitting icons - depending on what you actually want to edit.

  • Pencil (the most general)
  • Gear (editing basic settings)
  • Text cursor (editing inline text blocks)
  • Scissors (edit-cropping images)
  • Pen (editing long text blocks)
  • Brush (edit-painting/coloring images)

Imho - in general - Edit tasks always are specific, so I'd go with a basic (well known) icon (pen/pencil) and combine it with an icon representing the specific task.

  • Pen + Table = Edit Table
  • Brush + Image = Re-Color image
  • Scissors + Image = Crop image
  • Gear + Paper Sheet = Edit settings
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So essentially every application's toolbar icons (e.g. Photoshop, Illustrator, Paint, Word, etc.) could be considered an "edit" icon? –  Lèse majesté Apr 13 '12 at 3:42
    
You made me lough - I didn't ever see it that way. Aside from pen/pencil: Yes. Maybe I'm already routine-blinded. –  kaiser Apr 13 '12 at 9:10
    
Well, you are technically correct about them; it's just that coming up with a universal symbol which represents the general concept of "editing" is really hard. It's as much culture/tradition as it is logic. That's why most designers still use the pencil. –  Lèse majesté Apr 13 '12 at 15:21
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