12 Aug Icon Design; Convention vs. Innovation.
Category: Design, Icon Design

From the experience I have had with clients and input I had on the blog, I get the feeling people are starting to get frustrated with the notion that globes equal the internet. A while back I was chatting with someone in the late hours and he pointed out that icons in general are taking a turn for more conceptual graphics, deviating from the ‘norm’ – that is, the pre-established metaphorical conventions like globes representing internet, documents with a pen representing document-based applications, or a metallic rounded rectangle with a screen on it for single-window applications. There are a lot of exceptions to the conventions; some icons, as someone pointed out in the comments of my article on designing the Flow icon, just jump out of the convention without clashing with the aesthetics of the OS.

These are three examples of sound icons that have everything to do with the internet and, praise the heavens, feature no globe. If Craig Hockenberry’s article is anywhere near complete, the Icon Factory hasn’t even considered icon designs with globes for Coda (rather, a forklift, which I thought was a very nice concept). The Safari icon, as an additional example, has what you could consider a map of sorts reminiscent of a globe but I can’t say the strong metaphor in the icon is a globe. The point that I am getting here is that a globe is a visual convention for anything having to do with either network or internet (which, themselves, are closely semantically tied). Conventions have the advantage of being good for end-users; we once decided on making the Delete symbol in toolbars resemble a “No Smoking” sign without the cigarette in the interface, which doesn’t make a lot of sense, but these days, people expect it to be there – that, or you have to use another convention like a trash bucket.

In icons, it is worth separating the toolbar and application icons for obvious reasons. In the light of this article, they are distinctly different as well; application icons tend to benefit of innovation rather than convention, using either adaptations of conventions or none at all, whereas toolbar icons often strive to conform to all conventions, but still having an own style; be it in colors or slight stylistic adjustments – one could compare them to pictograms, being purely symbolic for functions. This increase of visual innovation in application icons has been quite steady and lately, even more unique icons have followed one another in the fight for your attention and curiosity. As we see this trend increasing, and more applications geared towards the same purpose come out for the Mac, it will become a lot harder for designers to come up with clever new metaphors. It’s only logical to assume that today’s innovations could be tomorrow’s conventions. Ideas, like any resource, are limited.

Perhaps the trend we are seeing is caused by developers and developing companies in general getting the concept that you cannot sell something without marketing it. Making your product stand out from the crowd is essential in the exponentially expanding software market for the Mac. Stock icons for applications (example; toolbar icons) are sold less and less because many a developer is glad to pay for an icon designer making it as beautiful as it can be. Developers really love their products, and most importantly; they want users, as it often means money or exposure. Now, I am sure Disco hasn’t gotten so popular due to its great icon design – however, it would have been a lot less popular with a bad icon. Also, people who don’t know Disco (i.e. cavedwellers) can get the idea that it is an edgy, new and innovative application from the icon conveying those messages. Look at it this way, and you can see how icon design matters, even with the greatest marketing campaigns.

It’s true; more innovating applications re-inventing the wheel but “doing it right™” means reinvented icons. Personally, regardless of the degree of innovation in the application, in my process with clients I aim for a great multitude of ideas and push for finding new metaphors and clever connections to use in an icon. In no way, however, do I stand in the way of using conventions in an icon if the client, or even me, desires it. But I must admit, globes get me itching a bit by now when it comes to application icons. Are you as curious as I am about tomorrow’s visual conventions?

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One Response

  1. 1

    Disco is “innovative” and “edgy”? Wait… An ugly new UI to access MacOS X’s built-in CD burning routines is innovative?

    My, what an interesting dictionary you possess, sir.