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Designing for Aqua

Creating Photorealistic Icons for Mac OS X


by Alan Graham
05/24/2001

"Quality icons are probably the single most visible attribute of your application on Mac OS X so you should invest significant resources into your icon design."
--Apple Computer

"Who cares about icons?" you may be thinking to yourself. Remember that icons not only represent your application, but they are your brand, your identity. They have always been an important part of the Macintosh experience, but in Mac OS X, the size and prominence of icons is elevated to a level never seen before in an operating system.

If you're a regular visitor to the Mac DevCenter, then you're probably learning how to build applications right now with the help of Mike Beam's column, Programming With Cocoa. Let's say that you build a cool little app you want to share with the world. Creating a hot icon for it will make a terrific first impression.

So, if you want to swim with the big fish, you better have a strong set of fins. Hopefully your icons will keep your application from sinking to the bottom of Aqua.

Barry White, the Pope, Macintosh HD

What do these things all have in common? They are all icons, and that is what we will be discussing in this piece. In this exercise, I started out trying to cover all aspects of icons (application icons, toolbars/toolbar icons, document icons), but I quickly found that developing icons in OS X is a whole new ball game. As I was deciphering the Apple Human Interface Guidelines for OS X, I found some interesting details:

  • Apple has yet to complete the Apple Human Interface Guidelines for OS X.
  • There are a number of new issues I have found that Apple (and other publications) don't cover.
  • I think Apple is still making some of this up as they go along.

Comment on this articleIf you have any comments or questions regarding your icon experiences in Mac OS X, let us have 'em!
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The plan

I will be at the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC 2001) when this article is published (come meet me in the O'Reilly booth), and will be attending a number of seminars on Aqua, some tailored toward building icons in OS X. This tutorial will be supplemented with information gathered at the WWDC. In this piece, I'm going to focus on building a photorealistic icon for your application and how to get the best image quality out of Aqua environments.

The good

There are a lot of good aspects to icons in OS X. Here are a few:

  • Icons can be built to 128 x 128
  • Anti-aliasing allow curves and non-rectilinear lines
  • Photorealistic icons
  • Alpha channel support
  • Icon Composer can build masks for you (no extra steps required)
  • OS X and Icon Composer can recognize a Photoshop file

For the first time, Aqua liberates us from many of the previous restrictions when building icons.

The bad

So far the door is pretty much wide-open when developing icons for Mac OS X. You can be as creative as you like; however, if you follow Apple's guidelines for creating icons, your creativity may be severely stifled. There is a new philosophy in OS X called Icon Genres.

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