A Lesson in Iconography

Published 3 years ago, mid-December under Design

New Adobe IconsAdobe gave us a glimpse at new icons for the CS3 suite yesterday. Each icon resembles an element from the periodic table, distinguished by color and a shorthand abbreviation derived from the name of the app. Many people are upset. Many have cited usability gripes – it’s difficult to read the abbreviation at small sizes; the color differences between icons are too subtle and useless to the colorblind. But my issue with the icons, regardless of usability concerns, is that they’re uninspired, commonplace, and are hardly icons in the true sense of the word.

Adobe’s Creative Suite is the most essential software tool I use on a daily basis – nothing else comes close (TextMate, maybe). Yet these icons are laughable – there’s nothing creative about them. I can appreciate the simplicity and pleasant typeface selection, but they fail to communicate the creativity, richness, and power of these amazing applications. It seems as if Adobe doesn’t understand what an icon is.

An icon is one of three types of signs (the others are indexes and symbols), whose purpose simply is to unify the signifier (the symbol or icon) and the signified (the associated concept). As Malcolm Barnard explains in Graphic Design as Communication:

“In iconic signs, the relation between signifier and signified is one of resemblance. The signifier resembles or looks like the signified in some way.”
(Barnard, 2005 - pg 33, emphasis mine)

distinct shapes help you separate functionsObviously it’s impossible to draw an icon that looks like or resembles ‘creativity’ or ‘Photoshop’ as these are complex abstract concepts. But it’s entirely possible to capture the ‘essence’ of these concepts and pictorially represent them. Barnard calls this an ‘indexical sign’ – the signified and signifier are linked causally or existentially rather than more literally linked with concrete iconography. The nature imagery of the CS and CS2 branding achieved this affect – linking the elegance, beauty, power, and simplicity of nature to complex software bundles – and it worked.

Signs and icons don’t have to immediately communicate what they mean – it’s far more important that they’re distinguishable. A red octagon communicates “stop�, but the link between ‘red octagon’ and ‘stop’ is entirely artificial. The sameness of the new CS3 icons makes them harder to distinguish – easier to forget which color signifies which application. If they properly designed distinct icons for each application abbreviations wouldn’t be necessary.

Jacques Aumont says that symbolic images grant “access to the sphere of the sacred”. Tibor Kalman says that most graphic design is about “making something different from what it truly is”. Adobe seems to have forgotten the magical function of graphic design with these new icons by delivering something entirely pedestrian.

Jason Santa Maria summed it up well when he said:
“this is an utter design failure�.

Works Cited:
Barnard, Malcolm. Graphic Design as Communication. London: Routledge, 2005.


3 Extra-Relevant Comments

  1. BeckleyWorks » Archive » Adobe Icons: Better Still Sucks December 21st at 9:42 pm

    […] These icons are so minimal, the only other thing differentiating these codes from one another is color. Very subtle color differences sometimes. So if you’re color blind, all you have are the codes that suck, and that really sucks. […]

  2. Bram.us » Their Toolbar December 22nd at 5:29 am

    […] Some more lecture on the subject … Spread the word! […]

  3. Joshua Blount May 31st at 1:13 pm

    I’ve said it elsewhere, but after using the new icons for a few months, I really feel like they’re a great fit, have you changed your mind at all about the new icons?


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