do not step out
icon cinematics
06/Feb/2007 | 20:58

Seeing What You Don't Notice: The Feel of an Icon

This article is a bit esoteric, but I haven't posted in a very long time, so I can get away with it.

When you look at the icon of an application, what goes through your head? Do you get a sense of what the application does? Are you reminded of tasks you've been putting off, or have in queue? Do you get ideas for new projects you'd like to start?

The answer, of course, depends on what kind of person you are. Are you a stay-at-home parent? Are you a software developer? Are you a writer? Are you an icon designer?

I've been doing some thinking about this lately. A lot of things go into making good icons, but few icons are truly great in the larger sense of the word. Don't get me wrong, I can name a ton of really kickass icons—avatars of application function, as one might say, that cause me to lean in close to the monitor and study every line and pixel contained within the rather constrained canvas—so perhaps that's what makes it difficult to declare kings and sultans in a landscape of art from which to choose.

But I'm going to declare one icon king of the land. The best icon in any piece of software shipping today.

BEHOLD, he rang out, the pompous announcement deafening his audience:

iMovie icon

What Makes a King?

"What's the big deal? It's one of those, you know, movie action things. Yeah, it looks really good, but what's so special about it?"

(It's called a clapperboard, in case it ever comes up in Trivial Pursuit.)

Take a closer look at the iMovie icon. What do you see? You're not looking for any specific detail, so don't put your nose against the screen, but there's something here that the designer slipped in without hitting you ham-fistedly over the head with it. We'll come back to it in a moment.

Getting technical details out of the way, it's solid design. Lines are clean, it scales down well (possibly the most difficult post-concept part of icon design), the colour choices are very slick, the perspective and lighting have been chosen appropriately, and the object in the icon conveys the purpose of the application quite well. (This last one isn't always a requirement, but when a designer goes that route, you can tell when he or she nails it.)

But lots of icons can say the same about themselves. What's iMovie got that the rest don't?

More Than a Feeling

Back to staring at the iMovie icon.

The element the designer managed, it's clever. It's obvious, too, and when I tell you, you're going to say, "Well, no shit!" It's obvious-after-the-fact obvious, which is the kind of obvious I like the most.

It's not lines, it's not shading, it's not the object itself . . . it's emotion.

There's an element of the icon meant to invoke an emotional response. It's really clever. In fact, it's fucking genius. Lots of people try to do it, but the brilliance here is in the subtlety of not attempting to beat you over the head with fake sentimentalism. This is not WELCOME TO THE SOCIAL. It's not a marketing statement. Here, it's a evocative concept rather than a slick brand promotion.

There are two elements in the icon: the clapperboard and the image of the two people running across. What are they doing? Are they two friends running through a park at night, lit by nearby streetlamps? Are they lovers running across the beach at night? A brother and sister ice skating across a snowdusted pond?

They're a memory.

Reliving a memory is an emotive experience; it creates a connection between you and something else. Maybe it isn't even a memory that really happened—you see the two people streaking in a flare of light past the camera and suddenly you imagine a story, which means you've been inspired on some level. Home movies are memories, and this is what the designer wants you to see, but not notice, when you use the application.

I posit that you've never actively thought about any of that, though. Nobody actually thinks about this stuff. It's just happened, and you never gave a thought as to why. Hell, there's an equally strong chance looking at the icon hasn't had this sort of effect on you at all, but you've still had a warmer response looking at it for just a moment than you would have with its competitive peers.

At least, you will now.