We look at them every day, our eyes are drawn to them almost every time we interact with the computer - icons for apps and files are a very important part of the interface. But what attributes make a good icon?
Personally, I tend to prefer icons that stand out visually. I’m fond of the icon for Notational Velocity, not because it’s attractive but because it looks completely different to every other icon (very few icons use lettering, and none of them in quite the same jarring manner as NV does).
One problem people have commented on in the past is the prevalence of ‘blue circles’ - it’s hard to pick out apps in a crowded Dock when all the icons are round-ish and blue-ish. For this reason, I’m also keen on icons that deliberately adopt brighter, more visible colors and unusual shapes. One I spotted (and liked) recently was the icon for Spotlaser, very distinctive.
But I’m not a designer. So I thought I’d ask a few professionals - people who know a thing or two about icons - for their thoughts.
Jon Hicks, creator of the Firefox icon (among others), said:
“That’s a really hard one to answer, but I guess it all comes down to simplicity that can work at small sizes, and still have scope for detail at large sizes.”
He went on: “My favourite application icon has to be Transmit by Panic. While it’s a very detailed icon, with subtle shading and form, its still an instantly recognisable Yellow Truck, no matter what size, 128px or 16px.”
How about Jasper Hauser, creator of the Camino icon? He summed things up like this:
“Basically there are two aspects that are the base of a good icon: 1) shape, and 2) use of color. If you look at the Appzapper icon you will see that it 1) has a original shape, and 2) uses irregular colors and an irregular color combination. Doing a blue circle will not stand out.”
Aside from Appzapper, what other icons does Jasper rate right now?
“My personal favorite is the Docktopus icon. One thing I really think is important for a good icon is that it uses a single object; the more objects, the more cluttered the icon gets. Most people forget that the icon must work on a variety of sizes it should still be recognisable at 16px, which is tiny.”
He added: “I guess there are two extremes in icon design; foto realisme (Aqua) and abstract. Then there is the middle area, more a fantasy area; that is where the fun stuff happens, like the Adium icon. No-one in their right mind would make it or think about it; the sport is to do it nonetheless.”