Armin Vit posted about the now-in-beta Office 2010 on Brand New, a blog about branding. Naturally, they showed off the new(-ish) Office 2010 branding, and, unsurprisingly, the application icons of Microsoft’s latest version of Office.
I wanted to share a few of my observations on the new icons and the history of Microsoft Office and its icons.
Let’s just say that Microsoft Office and icons have an interesting relationship with each other. You could consider them to be very monogamous couple.
With the release of Microsoft Word 3.0 in 1992, Microsoft included a so-called ‘toolbar’ with a set of icons in it that represented key functions of the program. You may be familiar with these icons:
While they were colored in the next versions, it would take an astonishing eleven(!) years for them to be replaced by only marginally different icons, in line with the Windows XP visual style (known as ‘Luna’ – or, as some fans call it, ‘Fisher Price’). The metaphor would remain virtually identical, and the perspective and shape slightly reworked, but Office and its toolbar icons were still a happy couple until toolbars were replaced with the new ‘Ribbon’ toolbar design.
The same goes for its application icons. I’ve had some trouble finding clear and clean pictures of yore showing the icons in their full glory, but I think we can all agree that MS Office 4.3 shipped with these:
The iconic ‘W’ for Word, the key for Access, the Excel X, are all recognizable as monuments in icon design. They have been practically unchanged throughout Office’s many version increments. As the suite grew, Outlook, Powerpoint and Publisher joined the family, seeking some of that truly iconic design for themselves. And indeed, their metaphorically significant design elements were maintained for several generations.
The Mac suite opted for a different type of icon design that fit in a lot better in the OS X dock, which goes to show Microsoft does care about looking (or acting) native. Something you honestly wouldn’t expect, considering the abhorrent mess known as Microsoft Messenger for Mac.
The Windows variants of the suite got a re-imagination in Office 2007, but the metaphors that had been established since the first versions of Office were still used as the primary recognizable element.
Until Office 2010.. In a fit of what can only be described as Adobespiration, Microsoft claims:
“The new icon designs respond to research that informs us that users can more easily associate icons by letter and color than by abstract design. We’ve adopted an alphabet system to bring a more uniform approach to the wide variety of Office family products.”
This is, of course, a rather thinly veiled attempt to mimic Adobe’s hugely successful (er, hum.) icon design strategy, which has forsaken their traditional, more metaphorical icon design and replaced it with bland colored squares coupled with slightly embossed letters. I’m not sure if they can still be called ‘icons’ in their own right – perhaps ‘indicator’ or ‘hint’ is a better word. Regardless, Microsoft has put their eighteen-year old metaphors in the icon’s background to put a few letters in the spotlight.
I’m just glad they haven’t switched the colors, so that still stands as a connection that goes back to the computer software bronze age. They have, however, forgotten about computer users sometimes being color blind.
Oh well, so much for icon design research, I guess.