Icons ceased being small
Long ago, icons were very small, and pixels were very large. Icon size 16×16 was the standard, and sometimes it was necessary to draw icons size 12×12 or even tiddlers size 8×8 pixels. Icon design was sometimes called “digital miniature.” Icons size 32×32 were considered large and time consuming.
Now everything has changed – the resolution and screen size increased. It takes an extra effort to see a small icon and clicking such icons with a pointer or finger became unrealistic (exceptions are Windows Mobile and stylus-equipped devices). Icons became large. Extremely large. Right now the maximum size of icons in Mac OS X is 512×512 px. Initially, it was not clear – why having such large icons? But with the screen resolution above 300 dpi, it became clear that larger icons are demanded.
Images inside icons in the Dashboard of Mac OS X Snow Leopard
Essentially, icons have turned into illustrations (sometimes quite complex, with a plot and several shots). In today’s industry no one cares whether you match pixels or lines. More often, icons are created in 3d-editors, and sometimes even using real photographs.
Very high detail
Designers used to have a problem: how do we place objects to be depicted into small squares yet maintaining realism, proper perspectives, and readability? As a rule, an icon pictures not more than three objects with clear features identifying their attributes. There used to be experts who could place a cowboy horse rider or even a whole naked lady into a 32×32 icon.
Now everything has changed. The icons grew larger and you can work on details for as long as you want. It’s tedious but the result is worth the effort – you end up with a work of art.
Icon for a mobile application from SoftFacade
Do you see that tiny black silhouette on the small yellow sign at the pedestrian crossing?
Button icons for touch-screens
Touch-screen interfaces are now widely spread mainly due to the appearance of the iPhone and the iPad. Styluses are gone and everybody’s fingering screens now. Previously, there was no difference between a “mouse icon” and a “finger icon”.
These icons are the same in size – but, surprisingly, the icons for iOS seem larger than the icons for Mac OS X.
Icons for the iPhone are square in shape and occupy all the space allotted to them. It is easy to guess that this was done so that you don’t miss them with your fingers – a square always has a larger area. An icon has its “own space”, which clearly prompts a user to “push here”. So that originated a new style of icons, which can in time become a de facto standard for touch-screens.
A slightly different approach was used by Android developers. They also have invented their own style for icons, which you press with your finger. Here’s how the application icons should look like according to the Androidguidelines:
- Modern, minimal, matte, tactile, and textured
- Forward-facing and top-lit, whole, limited in color palette
Android application icons
The rules here are somewhat fuzzy. On one hand, they offer more freedom to designers. On the other hand, creating unprofessional and inappropriate icons became simpler. Interestingly, almost all icons of Android apps tend to retain their square shape.
Realism is in fashion
One of the main trends in icon design is the pursuit of realism. The more the objects remind us the objects of the real world and the higher the level of detail – the better. Correct perspective, shades, reflections, material properties – all of these should be considered.
Icons by Iconfactory
Icons by Turbomilk
Pictograms are still alive and kicking
Surprisingly, but the old good “flat” icons are becoming more relevant. Everybody is bit tired of the glossiness, translucency, flares, and other attributes of realism. The icons are simple and clear, they have no “fat” at all. Some concentrate of essence. The growth of the size of icons, too, played its part – the pictograms also became larger and more compositionally complex.
Icons by Iconwerk
In the near future we will see a lot of pictograms in interfaces. Most of the major players are planning to use or are already using such style.
Some metaphors are old and soon will be gone forever
The most striking example — is, of course, the metaphor for saving(Save…) — the Floppy. We all quit using floppy disks long time ago but the metaphor lasted. I have briefly browsed the apps that I use every day and could not find a single toolbar with a floppy (looked closer and found one in Microsoft Office and another in the wilds of Adobe Creative Suite). Plus, our clients have not approached us for a floppy icon for a very long time by now.
I am sure that we will say goodbye to CDs since there are not that many people with CDs around these days, especially when it comes to music. The new icon of the music harvester iTunes 10 is a clear proof.
I wonder what kind of metaphors will be lost in the future? Hard drives, files, folders?
Unusual style will always be demanded
Despite the fact that an icon designer is almost an engineer, this trade has some room for creativity. The same realistic icons (or flat pictograms) are boring and the soul is begging for an unusual unique style. If you come up with some good stylistic method while keeping the unity of a set, then the reward will be some original icons that only you have.
Sticker icon set
Somatic icon set