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.
StockIcons.com 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.