What is a pencil used for?

Which function do you expect when you see a pencil? To draw something or perhaps fill the background... But in the context of a word processor?

Functions with similar icons

Instructions for icon design, including the Tango Icon Theme Guidelines for instance, require a set of icons to be homogeneous not only in lighting, perspective etc. but also in general style and the basic idea. But, of course, every icon of the set needs to be unique and distinct from others.

The functions Format Paintbrush and Show Draw Functions in Libreoffice (and other word processors) are assigned to icons with a broad pencil and a small brush respectively. Actually, the function Format Paintbrush is used to copy formatting of a passage and paste it somewhere else. And Show Draw Functions is just a switch to show or hide the toolbar for draw functions.


When we asked the users which icon fits best with one of these functions the resulting values are in a questionable range (read about user-testing of icons). Format Paintbrush gets 8.4 and 8.2 and Show Draw Functions only 7.6.

Table 1: Results of Icon Test.

Term Tango Oxygen
Format Paintbrush 8.4 8.2
Show Draw Functions 7.6 7.6

When presented with the term Format Paintbrush, 14% (Tango) and 8% (Oxygen) chose the icon for Show Draw Functions. Vice versa 23% (Tango) and 21% (Oxygen) mixed up the icons when asked for the icon representing the term Show Draw Functions.


It is likely that this mix-up results from the fact that both functions utilize the brush metaphor. Either in terms of a broad paint brush (for formatting) or a small pencil (for drawing functions). And the number of bristles is a bad indicator for the underlying function.

The reason why Format Paintbrush scores slightly better than Show Draw Function is probably due to the term ‘Paintbrush’ itself, which is a strong clue (at least for English language). Also, we could guess that Show Draw Function is simply used less often and the icon has not been learned that well.

Furthermore, Format Paintbrush doesn’t really suit the description of the function. Formatting is “cloned” by this operation. This has nothing in common with normal actions you would do with a paintbrush. So it is not only the icon that does not work – the terms used are questionable as well.

Which implications do these results have?

First, the question should be asked whether the drawing toolbar needs to get toggled on and off frequently. If not, the Show Draw Function item can well be moved to the main menu or to some other menu. Such a menu might contain all functions to show or hide toolbars whose current on/off status would be visible by their check state.

For the Format Paintbrush function a better label should be found, as discussed above. But also this function is not easy to use currently. Both parts – that is to copy the format from one position and to apply it somewhere else – are conducted by the same button, toggled down in copy state. Due to the fact that a clone operation can only be conducted once (after pasting the origin is cleared), it can’t be used to repetitively format within a document. Additionally,  formatting should preferably be applied by styles. So we think that it should be taken into consideration to remove this function completely or to redesign its behavior.

What are your experiences? Do you have ideas of better terms or better icons for these functions? Share your thoughts in the comments!

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