Remember when icons used to be icons, instead of portraits? I miss those days. Look out, Josh is about to complain about how things used to be better back in the 80s when pixels mattered, and that’s never a pretty thing.

Take a look at this icon, for the group document editor Hydra:
[Hydra icon (large)]

It’s a pretty nice logo. It effectively expresses Hydra’s collaborative nature, and the gee-whiz fun factor of having multiple people simultaneously edit a doc over the web. I’m sure GoodLogo would probably give it a decent score.

Now look at it within a Mac OS X Finder window:
[Hydra icon (small)]

This icon represents… nothing. It’s just a little smear. Not only do you lose all the branding benefits, this icon doesn’t even say to the user, “double-click this to open the app named ‘Hydra.’” It says absolutely nothing. Without the text, you wouldn’t be able to tell which app it is.

Windows XP is nearly as bad. Here’s an icon from the Control Panel, for setting power options:
[Power Options icon (big)]

Plugs and batteries are a pretty simple way to signify electricity. Now look at the small version:
[Power Options icon (small)]

If you get up close to the screen and squint, you can almost see the plug and the battery. Almost.

Contrast these portrait-like icons with the work of Susan Kare, who did the original icon sets for both the Macintosh and Windows 3.0. Those low-resolution, low-color images were necessarily reductive, which led to an aesthetic that valued the greatest amount of expression in the fewest number of strokes. Modern systems, offering millions of pixels and colors, give designers and illustrators a much broader palette to work with, and given extra rope, people will immediately find new and shiny ways to hang themselves.

This isn’t just a “computers should be ugly and boring ‘cos I’m a crotchety old programmer” rant, either (ok, it’s mostly that). By making images too busy and using too many colors, designers don’t just diminish the utility of their icons; they lose opportunities to distinguish their products from the rest of the market by taking advantage of highly advanced tools to make themselves look as similar to everyone else as possible. Everyone recognizes and loves the Happy Mac. Does anyone care about those Hydra dudes?

The word “icon” refers to representations of holy figures in Orthodox Christian churches. Maybe I should start putting up paintings of Paul Rand or April Greiman, and see if anyone salutes.

P.S. I know that this is an old and boring discussion, and that the correct answer to all this is to just take advantage of my monitor and use the large-icon modes in Finder and Explorer. But I’ve got a stick, and there’s a dead horse lying here, and by Gum, I’m not stopping ’till it’s nice and beat.