Blog: Secrets from the Chef

The Icon Book

Yegor GilyovAuthor: Yegor Gilyov
7 February 2006

If one studies the evolution of user interfaces since the 80’s of the last century up to now, it is difficult to get rid of the feeling that the trade of icon-building, which hardly was able to become an engineering science (e. g., in the Macintosh System 7 interface) can now be regarded as a fine art (Windows XP and Mac OS X).

Since some point, it has been the attraction of the pictogram that was valued rather than legibility and lucidity. The reason could be that the software developers could never forgive the icons the unfulfilled expectations that all the words in the interface could be replaced with more lucid pictures? In the year 85 Apple asked the developers to replace inscriptions with pictograms in all cases possible. Nowadays it is obvious that this approach was not a success. As soon as it became clear that pictograms can not convey the meanings better than words, they began to be given more decorative functions.

Yet the main reason for icon creation to be regarded as art rather than science is the new technical features. At some point it seemed that the icon-building science has a new prospect to develop — the symbols will be legible and recognizable thanks to the bigger sizes and anti-aliasing, the rich palettes will allow using the color coding, and the general happiness will be just here… No way. The icon-building engineers were replaced with artists, who made use of the new opportunities in quite a different way. The Windows XP (and Vista to come) and Mac OS X interfaces are living proof to that.

No, I am not blaming the Windows XP and Mac OS X icon designers. We are of the same kind.

The Icon Book

We are lucky to have a light in the darkness of creative freedom. This is a book written on the brink of the epochs, in 1994, at the end of the era of icon-building science and before the era of icon-building fine art. This is “The Icon Book” by William Horton. It is my advice to read it to everyone who deals with icon design or is just interested in the topic. Horton analyzes the mechanism of perception of icons by the user, classifies the methods of visual depiction of ideas, teaches to formalize the grammar rules for visual languages and shares his experience of organization of workflow. Nothing has become obsolete in the course of the 12 years.

Steve Jobs once said the interface should be so attractive that you’d like to give it a lick. Now that we have tried everything to make the user do so the pendulum is to swing back. Our goal is to unite our talent in creation of good-looking pictures with the priceless experience, which was cumulated by icon-building engineers over ten years ago.

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