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I am trying to come up with an icon that would capture the concept of "in use". I have a list of files, some of which will be used by other objects in the system, and I need a visual cue to present to the user that a given file is "in use" - i.e. has an established relationship/dependency with another object.

So far I have come up with a simple green light indicator.

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  • Seems to me you want something like what is used in revision control systems such as SVN: as documents are linked and "in use", "expired"? – benteh May 29 '14 at 19:48
  • This sounds more like a question about "reference counting" than "restroom occupied" or "that book is checked out." A subtle difference, but the answers seem to address the latter concept. – horatio May 29 '14 at 19:52
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could be a white sheet of paper with an animation of a pencil going up and down?

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Actually, it could be the same icon presenting "busy" situation or "wait" situation.

I personally like something like this -

enter image description here

There is TWO systems both using the same material. Probably it can match your situation. Different colors can be also pictographic.

  • Thank you for quick response! This is good but not quite there. This icon implies a temporal factor - that is, in short future the relationship will expire and the object in question will no longer be "in use". I can this would work for "processing". – user41234 May 27 '14 at 14:39
  • I would think in terms of "embedding". Example: a file is embedded in a project. Similarly to Windows- when you try to rename a folder/file that is in use by an application, you will get an error pop up. Hope that helps – user41234 May 27 '14 at 14:52
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Do not get too digital native on this. Usage of signs is to make user understand at first glance. You may use regular circular turn-knob lavatory "in use" style.

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If animation is ok - gear in rotation?

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Simple arrows might work, it give the idea that the object is currently doing something or is being "worked on."

enter image description here

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How about an icon of three people waiting in line? Similar to the top left portion of this pic:people waiting in line for their turn

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If the context is a list of files to be deleted, then green is a bad idea, perhaps red instead. (Ignoring any potential color-blindness issues)

If you need to quantify the number of references, then perhaps a circular area with a number such as magnitude (1 = few, 5 = many etc). You could even use, say, the Wingdings typeface for this.

Presumably this is to be in a long list, so the focus should be on quick assimilation of information, not "iconic fetishism."

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