Blog: Secrets from the Chef

Icon design trends 2010

Denis KortunovAuthor: Denis Kortunov
7 December 2010

Creating icons is a rather conservative area of design. Often a new and original icon works much worse than a standard and conventional one. But our industry does not stand still – new devices with new interfaces come into light and it changes the ways of operating such devices. It happens rather slowly but some trends are quite obvious.

I will say a few words about the method of identifying such trends. I work for a company that develops icons and interfaces; therefore, I need to keep track of all new gadgets, apps and their interfaces. Plus, some conclusions can be drawn based on what our customers want and what icons they order.

Icons ceased being small

Long ago, icons were very small, and pixels were very large. Icon size 16×16 was the standard, and sometimes it was necessary to draw icons size 12×12 or even tiddlers size 8×8 pixels. Icon design was sometimes called “digital miniature.” Icons size 32×32 were considered large and time consuming.

Now everything has changed – the resolution and screen size increased. It takes an extra effort to see a small icon and clicking such icons with a pointer or finger became unrealistic (exceptions are Windows Mobile and stylus-equipped devices). Icons became large. Extremely large. Right now the maximum size of icons in Mac OS X is 512×512 px. Initially, it was not clear – why having such large icons? But with the screen resolution above 300 dpi, it became clear that larger icons are demanded.

Images inside icons in the Dashboard of Mac OS X Snow Leopard

Essentially, icons have turned into illustrations (sometimes quite complex, with a plot and several shots). In today’s industry no one cares whether you match pixels or lines. More often, icons are created in 3d-editors, and sometimes even using real photographs.

Very high detail

Designers used to have a problem: how do we place objects to be depicted into small squares yet maintaining realism, proper perspectives, and readability? As a rule, an icon pictures not more than three objects with clear features identifying their attributes. There used to be experts who could place a cowboy horse rider or even a whole naked lady into a 32×32 icon.

Vintage icons from Pixture Studio and Iconfactory

Now everything has changed. The icons grew larger and you can work on details for as long as you want. It’s tedious but the result is worth the effort – you end up with a work of art.

Icon for a mobile application from SoftFacade

Do you see that tiny black silhouette on the small yellow sign at the pedestrian crossing?

Button icons for touch-screens

Touch-screen interfaces are now widely spread mainly due to the appearance of the iPhone and the iPad. Styluses are gone and everybody’s fingering screens now. Previously, there was no difference between a “mouse icon” and a “finger icon”.

These icons are the same in size – but, surprisingly, the icons for iOS seem larger than the icons for Mac OS X.

Icons for the iPhone are square in shape and occupy all the space allotted to them. It is easy to guess that this was done so that you don’t miss them with your fingers – a square always has a larger area. An icon has its “own space”, which clearly prompts a user to “push here”. So that originated a new style of icons, which can in time become a de facto standard for touch-screens.

A slightly different approach was used by Android developers. They also have invented their own style for icons, which you press with your finger. Here’s how the application icons should look like according to the Android guidelines:

  • Modern, minimal, matte, tactile, and textured
  • Forward-facing and top-lit, whole, limited in color palette

Android application icons

The rules here are somewhat fuzzy. On one hand, they offer more freedom to designers. On the other hand, creating unprofessional and inappropriate icons became simpler. Interestingly, almost all icons of Android apps tend to retain their square shape.

Realism is in fashion

One of the main trends in icon design is the pursuit of realism. The more the objects remind us the objects of the real world and the higher the level of detail – the better. Correct perspective, shades, reflections, material properties – all of these should be considered.

Icons by Iconfactory

Icons by Turbomilk

Pictograms are still alive and kicking

Surprisingly, but the old good “flat” icons are becoming more relevant. Everybody is bit tired of the glossiness, translucency, flares, and other attributes of realism. The icons are simple and clear, they have no “fat” at all. Some concentrate of essence. The growth of the size of icons, too, played its part – the pictograms also became larger and more compositionally complex.

Icons by Iconwerk

In the near future we will see a lot of pictograms in interfaces. Most of the major players are planning to use or are already using such style.

Some metaphors are old and soon will be gone forever

The most striking example — is, of course, the metaphor for saving (Save…) — the Floppy. We all quit using floppy disks long time ago but the metaphor lasted. I have briefly browsed the apps that I use every day and could not find a single toolbar with a floppy (looked closer and found one in Microsoft Office and another in the wilds of Adobe Creative Suite). Plus, our clients have not approached us for a floppy icon for a very long time by now.

I am sure that we will say goodbye to CDs since there are not that many people with CDs around these days, especially when it comes to music. The new icon of the music harvester iTunes 10 is a clear proof.

I wonder what kind of metaphors will be lost in the future? Hard drives, files, folders?

Unusual style will always be demanded

Despite the fact that an icon designer is almost an engineer, this trade has some room for creativity. The same realistic icons (or flat pictograms) are boring and the soul is begging for an unusual unique style. If you come up with some good stylistic method while keeping the unity of a set, then the reward will be some original icons that only you have.

Designer David Lanham from Iconfactory is an unsurpassed master of styling. His sets of icons are very unusual, yet are easy to read.

Sticker icon set

Somatic icon set

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Did I miss some trends? Please add to comments!

Reply @kortunov, 7 December 2010

Denis, but what happens with designers’ workload if we are talking about huge photorealistic icons? If we compare versus 10 years ago, would you say creating such icon now requires much more time than a simplier icon in the past? Your rough estimate would be appreciated.

Reply @prorender, 7 December 2010

I think you’re missing that (even these days) logos should be compatible all the way down to 16x16px. A decent icon takes this into account: Designers are constrained to make an image look good at a wide variety of resolutions

Reply @paintmysnap, 8 December 2010

Curious, if the floppy is going out of style, what do we replace it with?

Reply Jonathan Dumaine, 13 December 2010

We\’re (hopefully) slowly substituting saving and file management with easier systems–this way saving happens automatically and no explicit button is needed.

Reply Andri Möll, 13 December 2010

Very nice post; not to long but very clear and interesting,

Reply @artblackey, 14 December 2010

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