Guiding Lights

Apple Human Interface GuidelinesWhile doing some research on style guides at Behavior, I came across two interesting specimens from Apple and Microsoft. They’re both valuable references, but their approach to covering similar design concepts is indicative of the reputation each company has developed for design advocacy.Microsoft’s “Windows XP Visual Guidelines” is curiously available only as a .EXE download; interface designers must extract the archive and view the HTML pages locally. Apple’s “Aqua Human Interface Guidelines” is available for direct access through a Web browser, presumably so that the company can maintain control on the information presented therein. It’s the difference between a distributed (some might say laissez faire) approach and a centralized (some might say authoritarian) approach.

Perhaps more telling is the guidance each company offers on specific interface topics. In the realm of iconography, for example, Microsoft essentially provides a how-to guide for the production of Windows XP icons. Sure, they pay lip service to a conceptual foundation for designing sensical icons, but the emphasis is on how to get icons made.

Windows XP and Mac OS X Icons

Apple, by contrast, eschews such practical advice in favor of establishing guiding principles for an application’s iconographic language. They take the trouble to draw distinctions between, and set rules for, various types of icons, e.g., application icons, accessory icons, utility icons, document icons, preferences and plug-in icons, etc. There’s even a subsection entitled “Conveying an Emotional Quality in Icons.” Given material this rich it’s apparent why the Mac OS is so conducive to quality design.

Of course, it’s just as fair to fault Apple for falling down on the job of giving interface designers real-world help. Apple is being faithful to its reputation for design fussiness here, exactly the kind of preaching that turns off many computer users. It’s obvious that I’m not one of those users, and how can I be when the company offers advice of this sort:

For great-looking Aqua icons, have a professional graphic designer create them.