Worst icons ever? My reflexive answer: the icons for the buttons that open and close elevator doors. At least, the ones in my building.

I’ve seen then hundreds of times. Yet, every time I actually need to use them — usually, to help out someone enter by opening the closing doors — it takes me so long to work out which button does what that the effort invariably fails.

The icons invest their entire communication in their giant arrowheads. Arrows pointing opposite directions mean to show that this button opens the doors, vs. the arrows pointing toward each others, suggesting closing. Simple, it would seem. Yet, my first interpretation of either symbol is the opposite of its intention.

In becomes out

Maybe it’s just my personal mental wiring, which struggles when visual signals for spatial relations conflict with literal signals. When smartphones arrived, I for a long while had a similar but opposite problem with the gestures to zoom in and out of maps. The gestures have you indicate the chunk of map you want to fill the viewport, so you spread your fingers to expand a small area (zoom in) and pinch to retract a big area (zoom out). But the first thing I would think would be, “zoom in” or “zoom out.” Accordingly, I would move my fingers in (pinch) to zoom in, and move my fingers out (spread) to zoom out.

This never worked. It was a long while before I got used to the “proper” way. To this day I’m not convinced the gestures are intuitive.

My partner would insist that this issue is entirely my personal mental wiring. Even so, if there’s even a chance that these elevator icons could be clearer, shouldn’t they be?

Moving the line(s)

One conflict sullying these icons is between the spatial relationships in the icons and their literal meaning. Look at them. Those fat arrows with their bases back-to-back form a very tight — closed — image, while the opposing arrows result in a more spacious — open — image. Part of me associates the open image with the space between open doors, and the closed image with the sealed-tight closed doors. The visual effect says something different than its literal parts.

Adding to the confusion is the part of each icon that contributes no distinction: the static vertical line. If this line represents the doors, why not change it as another indication of the desired state? Preferably, that would be the end state.

Suggested elevator door icons, open and close

Suggested, improved elevator door icons: open, left, and close

Such a change, plus a reduction of the fat arrows, provides icons where visual effect and literal meaning are in sync. Works for me, and probably for lots of people.

Maybe, somewhere, some smart elevators have these very icons. Oh, to elevate in such a world.