Photoshop CS3 Icon Storm

One of the issues, many designers are polarized on with the new version, is not actually a functional issue, but, an aesthetic one. There is a storm brewing which in my mind is almost as big an issue as the faux pas Quark created when they re-branded last year.

The issue has actually to do with the new look of the Adobe Product icons. As a long time designer of icons for applications and as a creative whose been involved in the process of creating software, I am deeply troubled by this new look, which on the surface looks like nothing more than a couple of letters on a button.

For me the creation of an icon for identifying an application has to be considerate of functional, aesthetic and practical considerations. It must both be immediately identifiable and also in the case of a product which sits within a suite of products, look like it is part of a family.

When I first saw the new icon I wrongly assumed (like many others) that it was a placeholder for a later and more visually exciting design. An assumption which I was quickly disabused of by none other than John Nack ... and rightly so too, that'll teach me to open my gob, before I finish reading and looking into the facts. The color wheel below was shown on the Adobe site as an indicator of the thinking behind the colour values assigned to the icons and also an indicator at how the new look was mapped onto their products.

CS3 Icons - copyright Adobe Systems Incorporated

As you can see above, most of the icons are very simple buttons with a two letter label ... pretty boring if you ask me, even if they are functional. If this is the direction chosen, then I'm more than a little disappointed at what has up to now been a very inspiring and explorative approach to application identity.

So why am I being so critical ... truth to be said I am a fan of simplicity, and if like in the case of the existing Macromedia icons for Flash and Dreamweaver, Adobe had used a very distinctive looking font or character type, then the approach could perhaps be forgiven.

However, the typeface selected for this application is in my mind, very nondescript, and as a result, is in danger of falling into being somewhat ineffectual. These icons have a Homogeneity which much like political correctness and which should, in my thinking, be avoided at all costs.

The whole look reminds many who have commented, of a periodic table type concept mapped onto a colour wheel, and whilst the approach is cute, it is far from creative in it's current incarnation. Cute but no cigar...

Adobe, please create a look and feel that makes the icons look unique and immediately able to stand out from the crowd rather than one which looks like an afterthought. I personally want more effort put into the applications I use, rather than just being represented by lettered buttons.

All this aside ... it's only a tiny issue when you consider just how awesome this new version of their top application actually is. Too bad if this is what you’re settling for ... raise the bar please. I know your in-house creatives are more than capable of a lot more.

As I suggested on the Adobe forums whilst simplicity is one of the stylistic approaches you can take when designing icons, it is not necessarily the most communicative. Iconography is largely about communication and whilst these icons do have a distinctive look, that look is in danger of being nothing more than a textual label on a button.

Give me something which is evocative, something which cries creativitity and echos some of the products traditional roots, rather than a perceivably bland button. The Application is awesome, let the icon live up to that...

Visit the following sites for several threads on the subject; Jason Santa Maria dislikes the look whilst Veerle Pieters Veerle Pieters, likes them. John Nacks blog on Adobe, also has several threads worth visiting this thread introduced the question, and this one took the issue further.

Update 25/12/2006 - Another issue where the new icons/glyphs will run into trouble, and it's a big one, is in the area of localization. What are adobe going to do for other languages. In the case of western languages this wont be too big a problem but what about arabic, CJK (Chinese- Japanese-Korean), Hebrew, Greek or Cyrillic. Icons should have some kind of link to functionality, English Text labels unfortunately do nothing for users whose language is soemthing which doesnt use latin glyphs. This has always been one of the most fundamental lessons that I've taught many of my students and junior designers.