Sep 09

The birth of icon envy

The icon as art form, courtesy of Apple

One giant leap for icon-kind

Innovation has become an art form for Apple. Quite literally this time. The little beauty on the left is actually an example of what the lowly application icon has become in Mac OS X Snow Leopard.

Back in olden times (maybe a month ago?) developers were forced to craft their icons in a microscopic box. Now they can paint on an easel, with all the marvelous detail they can fit into a 512-pixel square. (More examples of Snow Leopard’s icons here.)

What’s the point? Well, if you’re a normal person, you’ll probably stop at “wow, this stuff looks really cool.” And that’s fine. You don’t need the explanation, you’re just supposed to enjoy the effect. It’s the same philosophy used in designing the Apple Stores. You don’t need to know that the stone flooring at the Apple Store Fifth Avenue can only be found in a remote quarry in Italy. You’re just supposed to walk on it. Quality has a way of making itself felt.

Now that Apple has demonstrated how far icons can go, developers will be inspired to lavish the same kind of love on their own Mac icons. And in the ongoing back-and-forth between OS X and Windows, Apple again gets to give its customers a knowing wink. You’re in a special place.

  • Ken, you going CNET on us? Or MacLife?

  • ken segall

    Ha! I thought I’d just test the limits of those who wander by. Who among us doesn’t love a geeky icon?

  • my icons look small and puny by comparison… now i’m sad…

    i can’t wait till they make icons in hi-def! 1080 pixels or bigger for me!

    this seems to be one of those “why did they bother with that when there’s so many other things to fix?” moments… o.k., they’re bigger and better detailed… and that helps the system do what it does how? by eating more memory? taking up more space?

    don’t get me wrong, i love Apple as much as the next guy… alright, not as much as you, ken… the OTHER next guy… but there seem to be a lot of more pressing needs to address, yes?

  • ken segall


    I’ve been meaning to talk to you about your icons. Puny indeed. As for the “why” of this, there is more to it than making things pretty. If you go to the link in my post, there is a little bit of a set-up about this being a step towards resolution-independence for future devices. But really, even if there weren’t a good technology reason for it, I think beauty is a pretty good reason. It’s all part of the experience, just like the jewel-like buttons or — most taxing of all on the processor — the drop shadows for every window. As long as processors keep getting faster, these small improvements shouldn’t have any downside to them.

  • The debate on what is more important to address is never going to die out. But these little delights are what make the fans keep coming back for more, and retain them as fans. It’s like the flower shape on the foam of my capuccino – I didn’t ask for it, but I do look for it each time I get my cup :-)

  • Kenny Liebman

    Flower-shaped capuccino foam? Sounds like I’m hanging out at the wrong coffee shops.

  • ken segall


    Hmm, I never got the flower either at my coffee shop either. But I do get your point, and totally agree. The little touches that make us smile are really important to the overall experience, whether we are conscious of them or not.

  • Hello from Russia!
    Can I quote a post in your blog with the link to you?

  • ken segall


    Hello and welcome. Sure, be my guest. Best of luck to you.


  • twobyte

    Icons on Windows have been available in 512×512 size since Vista. Did it really helped?

  • ken segall

    You sent me scurrying to check, because I was wondering if I had the wrong info. I find no reference anywhere to Vista being capable of 512 x 512 icons. I did find a number of references that put Vista’s icon size limit at 256 x 256.