While a freshman in art school, I decided to try my hand at icon design after reading an article in MacAddict (now MacLife) on the topic. The 90's were the initial exploration and maturation years of Mac desktop/interface customization, if you will. In 8-bit, pixel-by-pixel form, icon designers, as a global collective, released downloadable sets to fans of digital personalization. Via ResEdit (in most cases; certainly my tool of choice at the time), we were designing mini mosaics. It was amazing during that time to see what your peers could conceive and create within a 32-by-32 pixel grid with a finite color palette.
Beyond icons of mugs, squirrels, cartoon characters, etc. (keep in mind most fathomable subject matter hadn't been covered at this point), some designers branched into releasing sets intended to replace the stock system-level Mac OS icons (hard drive, folders, CD, trash, etc.). Designing a system icon suite forces you to think completely conceptually. I found getting into this branch of iconography particularly interesting as being more a graphic design exercise, than in creating object or character-based icons. Some examples of my stuff circa 1998:
During those days of experimentation in system-level icon design, there were three steps that served every set:
- Define the theme
- Establish the overall aesthetic
- Maintain the style across the entire suite of icons
Point three gets extra emphasis; the vitalness of consistency can't be underestimated. In web site design, after the overall look-and-feel is nailed down, I'll work out specific UI elements (icons, controls, widgets). Maintaining clarity of purpose and consistency with the overarching interface are paramount concerns. I've found while working through the project, sometimes an idea comes up for a control or icon that I'll work out and implement; on second look later, however, it doesn't fit in with the larger established suite of design elements. Most times the overall look-and-feel will (and should) organically mold the "hey let's add..." -type controls — but it's always worth a double and triple check on overall consistency at regular intervals.
Back to system icons; with massive canvases, zillions of colors, and advance rendering mechanisms available for today's designer, present OS/system icons are a far cry from their humble beginnings. The graphic style of system icons for Mac OS X, throughout its various iterations and upgrades, has permeated icon design across innumerable platforms and media. The iconfactory's work in this design type over the years has always set the standard for style and consistency spanning hundreds of system icons (like the entire Vista OS, for example). Their approach is defined by the brand, and their authorship is perpetually transparent.