Blog: Secrets from the Chef

Icon Design by Caplin

Yegor GilyovAuthor: Yegor Gilyov
19 August 2004

It was with greatest surprise that I understood that the moment we’d been waiting for so long arrived a year ago. The first book dedicated to “computer pictogram design” was published in Russia.

Cover

Unfortunately, the book does not give the amount of copies in circulation, thus, we can only speculate about the quantity of potential readers. I wish there would be some thousand designers at least interested in this specific issue.

Anyway, it’s not all about the quantity. Let’s see what is that potential reader, for the sake of who the book was translated and published on good paper, with color illustrations and in a hard cover. Let’s make a verbal portrait of the ideal Russian reader of Steve Caplin’s book (hereinafter referred to as the Reader).

The Reader is unlikely to have a vast experience of work with computers. At least, he has not had the opportunity to learn the interfaces of graphical applications. In any other case it is not clear why a fair share of the book is stuffed with fragments of those interfaces supplied lengthy descriptions, like “the Crop icon is widely used and well read. It looks like two intersected angles with a diagonal line between them…”. The enlarged examples of the icons look terrible, the pixels are blurred. Well, they are printed on glossy paper. It is smooth to the touch.

The Reader follows the fashions of the computer world Bohemia and expresses slight contempt for Microsoft and deep respect for Apple. Together with the author of the book the Reader resents at the software giant’s theft, “Windows copied the Macintosh interface using the same windows with scrollbars…”. It is not to say anything about the author writing a little earlier that this graphical interface comes from the Xerox research center. Well, well, Jobs borrowed it for future creativity and Gates committed a cold-blooded theft. The author even gives proof to that, “the icons from the Control Panel are identical on both Windows and Macintosh”. Yes, the ideas of many icons are identical. The author, however, fails to suggest any other way to draw an icon for, say, mouse settings, except drawing the mouse proper.

To be honest, the book lacks author’s ideas and works. It is not surprising. Steve Caplin, a freelance artist and a winner of several prestigious awards, has never specialized in development of graphics for user interfaces.

As we learned earlier, the Reader isn’t very experienced in the work with the computer. However, he is already eager to change standard system icons to something original. For instance, it could be portraits of Beavis and Butthead. A whole chapter of the book is dedicated to such icons “to suit any taste”. The next chapter, which is dedicated to icons on the Internet, is none the less interesting. Curiouser and curiouser, as Alice in Wonderland would say. In the author’s words, “Internet has two advantages over applications and operating systems: the icons can be of any size and they can move”. The grateful Reader will probably go and furnish his web site with an animated Homer Simpson or, at least, with a rotating 7UP can (these examples are from the book).

Anyway, let us not rush to judgement. Even if you don’t need the fifty pages of fine paper filled with icons from various interfaces (mainly from graphic applications), if you respect Microsoft and are indifferent towards Apple, if you are completely satisfied with standard system icons and loathe animation on web sites… You might still be interested to look in the last two chapters of the book.

Is there a person interested in the history of pictograms in software interface who would miss a chance to learn more about the pictogram gurus, Suzan Kare and Katja Rimmi? Suzan Kare, inter alia, is the author of the first Mac OS icons. Katja Rimmi is the user interface manager of Adobe Systems. These twelve pages are the most valuable in the book. They would be even more valuable, if it weren’t for the annoying mistakes. The author says, for example, that “her [Suzan’s] talents are in demand as they used to be. IBM used her service in the work on the operating system that followed OS/2”. The original publication of the book is in 2001, whereas the final version of OS/2 was released in 1996, lest my memory should fail me, and after that IBM made no attempts to come to the operating systems market.

The final chapter is fully devoted to practicalities, like the optimal angles for pixel lines, palettes, transparency masks and other useful and not very useful things. The author is diligent in demonstrating all stages of creation of icons for some imaginary application. It is no use trying to evaluate the author’s talent as of the tutor for the younger generation of designers, because the translation of the book falls far behind the time: the advent of Mac OS X and Windows XP spells the advent of vector-based icons.

Summing up: I would not recommend to spent the money.

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