Details are emerging about the forthcoming Adobe CS3 suite. Big news today: the icons were announced!
Alright, now I’m sure every industry experiences this: from time to time, controversies brew up that appear to the outside observer as obsessive, myopic navel-gazing. Talking about application icons definitely falls under that banner; as a crime against humanity, it ranks somewhere around the level of accidentally using 1% milk instead of skim in someone’s coffee. There are indeed more important things to worry about in this world. A lot of them. That said… what in the world led them down this path? Paint chips! For an entire suite of application icons! Did I sleep through the announcement where Pantone bought Adobe or something?
Hey, they probably looked great through a projector’s lens during the meetings. And placing them on top of the ultimate designer’s emblem, a colour wheel… maybe that Kool Aid wasn’t too hard to swallow. I just can’t imagine an actual icon designer was involved in those meetings, or maybe they simply got voted down.
Because when you actually look at them in situ, it strikes me as glaringly obvious how poorly these work in the view that designers will be seeing every single day. I wasn’t overly impressed with the new Office 2007 icons, but they’re a world apart from these paint chips.
Commenters on John Nack’s original post seem genuinely baffled that these are considered production-ready icons for the world’s premiere design suite. Upon seeing the blue “Ps” icon slapped onto the Photoshop CS3 beta, most assumed they were looking at a placeholder.
Jason Santa Maria expressed his feelings quite elegantly:
When making icons, you usually try to design something simple and recognizable to identify things. At the expense of creating a family of icons, you’ve watered them down so much as to be unrecognizable at a glance. The variety of color, while great in theory, does little to help matters because of the sheer number of icons. The plain facts that monitor variations kill the subtle differences, and there are quite a few color blind people out there who can’t distinguish certain shades from one another, should have led you towards a backup plan. That may be what the periodic letters are for, but in choosing to go with one font, and one orientation, you’ve created enough noise that none of them would be recognizable among the others. Plus, baking in the action of having to read the icon just to decipher it adds an unnecessary step.
This is an utter design failure.
Alright, so maybe it’s all subjective. Maybe most of the people who have seen them so far just simply don’t like them, but everyone else will. No? No. There are ways to quantify how badly these icons work for their intended purpose.
They fail because there is no shape variation. Every icon is contained within an identical square. Nothing breaks the silhouette, the only shape variation occurs inside the square, in the form of the letters. But using a common typeface, stroke weight, and posture across every icon means the various letters have more in common with each other than they differ, and at a glance they all blend together. Since this is the sole shape differentiator, it’s a big, big problem. Don’t just take my word for it, go read Matt Queen’s detailed article, Icon Analysis: Evaluating Low Spatial Frequency Compositions for enough detail about icon shapes to make your head spin.
And these icons fail because conveying important information through colour must be done with care; the current design appears to sample at random from the colour spectrum. More specifically, relying mainly on colour to distinguish between items is a basic HCI no-no, and something anyone who has ever glanced at WCAG knows by heart.
I’m rather wondering if this prominent colour issue won’t open a Pandora’s box of inept colour usage. “I know I’m using colour as a sole distinguishing factor here, but hey, Adobe did it too, so I’m in good company.” Repeat ad nauseum.
There’s hope, I suppose, that the situation will improve somewhat. John Dowdell of Adobe chimed in on his post with this, and a call for a bit of patience until the full picture is revealed:
For what it’s worth, I agree that it’s difficult to get the full picture from that single screenshot.
I’ve seen a more complete presentation of this design, though, and it makes a lot of sense to me, seems a lot more intuitive than feathers and such.
Okay, we’ll see what that turns out to be when it happens, but I’m not recommending anyone hold their breath. Let me echo Jason once more: what a mess.