The Big Business of Little Icons

StockIcons.comIf you’ve used Windows XP, MSN Messenger, AOL 6.0 or a host of other programs, you’ve already been exposed to the exquisite work of The Iconfactory. This small group of iconographers has spiritually led, if not dominated, the business of designing icons for the past several years. They’ve demonstrated again and again that they’re more than just talented icon artists; they’re also savvy marketers. Their latest venture,, is another example of their gift for expanding the market and mindshare of computer iconography.

The Iconfactory practices an arcane art: a nexus between illustration, information design, semiotics and the same human fascination with miniaturization that also gave the world Hummels and model railroading. Creating beautiful icons has always required a nuanced, unquantifiable talent for understanding aesthetics at an extreme scale; I’ve tried my hand at it several times, and each time I walked away with the realization that it was more than just drawing very small pictures. is a sharp-witted, entrepreneurial innovation that both capitalizes on this rare talent and undermines it. The idea behind the service is exactly the same as that of royalty-free stock photography vendors like Getty Images’ PhotoDisc: customers — designers, obviously, but also shareware authors and other enterprising software developers — buy collections of user interface icons, which they are then free to use in their projects in pretty much any manner they choose.

Here’s my one reservation about this: I can’t help but think to myself that it demystifies the art of iconography in some small way. Imagining a near future wherein dozens and dozens of software programs will all share the same home, back/forward and trash can icons makes me a little sad. Of course, I’m overreacting here, because a litany of similar services hasn’t dealt any permanent damage to photography, and if anything, there are plenty of applications that could desperately use some well-designed icons. I salute these guys for finding a clever way to start earning some real money from their gorgeous work, as they’ve been giving away this stuff for free for seven years now.