My Hate/Hate Relationship With Arrows

When talking about design – in any sense – there are so many conventions that we take for granted and assume that everyone else understands.

Take the tick (✓) for example – that usually means “yes” or something is correct doesn’t it?

Well, no actually. The issue with the seemingly ubiquitous tick is that it isn’t recognised universally in that respect. As Separated by Common Language points out – there have been systems where a checkmark or tick can indicate a wrong answer.

To add to the confusion of a tick meaning a correct answer, the  ‘Ex’ (X) is used to indicate a positive mark on a ballot paper. You put the Ex next to the candidate that you want to see elected. In fact, the seemingly simple task of marking a ballot sheet results in a number of spoilt ballet papers during any UK election.

These simple examples immediately challenge our assumptions of what we take for granted. Plastering a giant Ex next to a diagram surely means “don’t do this”? Well, to you and me maybe, but someone else looking at  the diagram may see the Ex mean that this is acceptable or required.

I suppose that you’d be wondering what this has to do with arrows? Directional arrows take a critical place in design. One common use of the arrow is in tables. They helpfully tell us which direction the columns are sorted in so that we can easily find the data we’re looking for. The only problem is that they are not helpful. Not in the slightest.

Just as the innocent Tick and Ex can be misunderstood to mean to opposite of what the person using it has intended. The directional arrow can mean the opposite of what we expect. The cause of this is that the arrow serves two functions.

The first is to show which direction something is moving in. When we see a sign pointing left or right as we turn into a road we know that means that the traffic goes in this direction. Simple, isn’t it?

The second function of the arrow is to represent a weight or importance. This is when things get a little confusing. When you line up a series of numbers and show an arrow next to the list, you generally mean that the wide end is the higher number while the thin end of your arrow is a low number.

When dealing with columns of data, these two representations both come into play. You may have even noticed that on your computer that you can sometimes get yourself confused with the sort order. A perfect example of these two methods working against us as we try to get our heads around the problem was staring me in the face as I wrote this. Two windows open – one is the Nautilus file manager and the other is Filezilla. Here’s a screenshot.

Look at which direction the arrows go, and then look at the order of the files.
Look at which direction the arrows go, and then look at the order of the files.

This screen shot shows two things. The first is that I have way too many files in my Desktop directory. The second is that the files are listed in the same order but the arrows point in opposite directions!

Which one is correct? Both of them. There is a minor difference in the style of the Filezilla arrow where the centre pipe is missing. But despite this the arrows in both could represent either the direction or flow of the list or which end you’d find the highest value.

I think that this is a good point for me to reconsider using arrows to represent data in this manner. In fact, a simple A → Z and Z → A representation Or even A → Z and A ← Z. This way at least we’re showing the flow of the data. It may not be the prettiest symbolism but it’s the most accurate.

Do you have any alternative methods to using arrows? Let me know!