Blog: Secrets from the Chef

10 Outstanding Metaphors in Icon Design

Denis KortunovAuthor: Denis Kortunov
22 January 2009

10 outstanding metaphors in icon designFor each and every action or object, different icons can be drawn. These can have any variations: in style, color, perspective and even metaphor. In my view, the latter is the most valuable in the design of icons — the concentrated thought. And if the metaphor is original, and humorous, then it turns out to be not just an icon, but genuinely brilliant! I present for your review my personal selection of icons based upon unusual and shining metaphors.

#1 Windows 3.11

Let’s start in long ago 1993, with Windows 3.11, which had one of the most beautiful interfaces in the entire history of this operating system. It’s obvious that the designers have worked with great love and diligence. They paid a great deal of attention to details and nuances.

Windows 3.11
  1. Desktop — How else could you represent the work space in different operating systems! In my view, this is the most amusing and touching. And what about those reflections on the glasses!
  2. Sound — The use of the eyes is very common in iconography. But here are the ears — a great rarity.
  3. Hearts — How cute: spades with eyes! This just isn’t done now.

#2 OS/2 Warp 4

In OS/2 Warp 4 , released in 1996, three dimensional icons appear, which are gradually coming into common usage. The basic framework is still the same, however, pixilated icons using a 16-bit color palette.

  1. Desktop — the “Lenin Style” green lamp hardened my heart. But in general, as soon as the work space icon had been made three-dimensional, the Desktop itself had to made that way also.
  2. Applications-A folder with attachments — a very complex, general usage icon and metaphor which had not been considered until now. The interface designers of OS/2 agreed that the shelf with a boxes/books and deck of cards — that’s just what you need!
  3. Trash Can-Attentive readers will recall that I cursed this icon in the article “10 errors in the design of icons”. But the metaphor is indeed unusual, and it’s a very attractive shredder.

#3 BeOS R5

When this new generation, multimedia OS appeared, many had pinned great hopes on it. In the end, however, it was a failure, but that is not important. So, in 2000, BeOS R5 exited, which had been decorated with some of the most unusual icons.

  1. Desktop — There’s that green lamp again! With such a solid and realistic “table”, the interface might have to be made fully three-dimensional!
  2. Browser — The term “web-surfing” was created, but the icon that spawned the metaphor remained a rare exotic. What a shame!
  3. File Manager-They would tell us: “This helps you search for files!” Very funny metaphor. While it’s true that I would not want a dog-manager filing my documents — dogs are rarely successful in this endeavor.

#4 Mac OS X Automator

Now. Well, almost. 2005. Robots! Robots! Robots!


The Automator program allows you to create scripts to automatically complete actions. This assistant appeared for the first time in Mac OS X Tiger. You rarely succeed, if you see the icon, to fail to understand what the program does. Compare this with other closed, scripted programs — scroll bars and buttons with pointers. (Yuck!)

#5 VLC Media Player

Prior to that we reviewed the “native” icons of various operating systems. This video player is not a part of the operating system but, considering the popularity of VLC Media Player, it can be easily considered as standard.

VLC Media Player

This icon makes it very difficult to guess what the program does. But it is a somewhat unusual metaphor! I tried to find out why the developers of VLC chose it on a traffic cone. The history is quite strange. It turns out that the developers (students of the École Centrale Paris) have a collection of these cones. In honor of this they created the icon.

#6 Mac OS X Front Row

Front Row is the native media player of the Mac OS X in the style of Apple TV. This is not even the present time, but the future.

Front Row

This is also an interesting case. Why a chair? Going by the icon, it is not completely clear what the program does, but it reflects the essence of the process: “Sit back, relax, and watch the movie!” In general, icons of different media players have problems with a single metaphor. I do not think that will change in the foreseeable future.

#7 Roxio Toast

Roxio Toast — This is the de facto standard program for “burning” disks under Max OS X. Fortunately, disks are not toasted, unlike those that emerge from this toaster!

Roxio Toast

One of the most brilliant metaphors in the history of iconography. A toaster is a much more understandable and appropriate metaphor than the standard radiation symbol. In the picture represented by the Roxio Toast 7 icon, the current image of the toaster changed from version to version.

#8 Transmit

Transmit — The FTP-client for Mac OS X. The icon reminds me of a geek riddle: “A truck transports five tons of DVDs from point A to point B. What will be the data transmission rate in this case?


For this program there is a widget, that if you drag a file onto it, then he has an “exit” off an imaginary road in the pre-specified location. How cute!

#9 Twitterrific

Twitterrific — This is a client program for regulating tasks for the microblogger using Twitter.


I’m not good at drawing birds, but I would like to assume that the bird drawn in the icon is a sparrow. The point is that in English “tweet” means “bird song” or “chirp”. Here is a bird and its chirp. So simple, but original.

#10 Computer icon for a Windows computer in a networked environment, Mac OS X

If you use a Mac, but there is a PC on the network — you can share files and use shared printers. This is good news. But there is a nuance.

Windows PC

That’s how the icon for a computer with Windows looks in a networked environment of Macs. The joke by the designers filibusters at Apple was a little obscure, but a bit coarse.

At this time, I finish my review. I did not want to, but I turned off in the direction of programs for Mac OS X. Unfortunately, I did not find any interesting icons in Windows Vista. Plus, I excluded the icons of little-known programs. I would be very grateful if you send me (or write in comments) of other examples of icons with unusual metaphors.

Related entries

Terms of Use

These materials can be used for any purposes with obligatory indication of the author.


Hilarious post dude! I love the one with the trash can/shredder.

Reply Corey Freeman, 22 January 2009

Good post! I love the Windows BSoD in #10 — very funny! I think the chair in Front Row (#6) is supposed to be a red velvet seat like you would find in an old movie theater or opera house. That’s what it reminds me of. Maybe if they had expanded the frame a little and shown that there were identical chairs on each side it might have been more obvious.

Reply, 29 January 2009

people om mac always kidding Windows……..

When this comes to an end :(

Reply, 15 June 2009

Good post! I love the Windows BSoD in #10 — very funny! I think the chair in Front Row (#6) is supposed to be a red velvet seat like you would find in an old movie theater or opera house. That’s what it reminds me of. Maybe if they had expanded the frame a little and shown that there were identical chairs on each side it might have been more obvious.

Reply, 29 January 2009

Leave a comment

You can log in with your twitter or facebook accounts. After authorisation on one of this sites, you'll be able to leave comments here.

Connect with Facebook

If you have an OpenID (for example, use it to authorise.

Log in with your Turbomilk account or register a new one.