is a blog about design, technology and culture written by Khoi Vinh, and has been more or less continuously published since December 2000 in New York City. Khoi is currently Principal Designer at Adobe, Design Chair at Wildcard and co-founder of Kidpost. Previously, Khoi was co-founder and CEO of Mixel (acquired by Etsy, Inc.), Design Director of The New York Times Online, and co-founder of the design studio Behavior, LLC. He is the author of “Ordering Disorder: Grid Principles for Web Design,” and was named one of Fast Company’s “fifty most influential designers in America.” Khoi lives in Crown Heights, Brooklyn with his wife and three children. Refer to the advertising and sponsorship page for inquiries.+
There’s a crucial part of interface design that vexes me and it’s iconography, the discipline of crafting highly communicative, aesthetically efficient pictorial symbols in miniature. It takes a special combination of artistry, patience and visual economy in order to get it right, and I’m in awe of everyone who has this skill. (I’ll say also that there are many folks who are competent at this art form, but exceedingly few who are truly good at it.)
What confounds me about iconography, though, is only partly the fact that I’m astoundingly no good at it. It’s also the idea that the idiom of icons, at least in its current state, stands at a polar opposite to my own sensibility. To be specific: the majority of commonly accepted and commercially functional icons in use today are visually literal — they represent objects or combinations of objects, even if they are intended to stand in for abstract concepts — and they’re almost exclusively dimensional.
By contrast, I like incredibly abstract and minimal graphical elements. For me, a simple, one-pixel straight line is practically a revival of the Rococo style. If I had my way, the only pictorial components of my design work would be the pictures: photographs or illustrations. Everything else would be simple and elementally native to the browser, or whatever other rendering mechanism I’m working with. Which is to say, you’d only ever see lines and boxes — and flat ones at that. No shading, please, and no three-dimensional modeling.
I Can᾿t Icon
Still, it’s hard to get around some very fundamental truths of early 21st Century interaction design. Particularly the idea that usability is a criterion that will not be ignored. In this Alertbox-fueled orthodoxy, the fiat of usability says that icons intended to cue actions must be pictorially unambiguous and spatially representational. An arrow needs to look exactly like an arrow, and it also needs to be beveled, shaded and/or evocative of a physical object from the real world.
During business hours, when I’m charged with providing design services in as commercially viable a manner as possible, I accept this premise. A button’s gotta shout out “I’m a button and I will do exactly what you think I will do when you click on me so why not click on me!” loudly and unabashedly to a user. And if it needs a little shading to help it do so, I can’t justifiably ignore that mandate simply because it offends my own artsy-fartsy rule book. This is the Web.
About Those Icons You See…
On the other hand, I’m free to flaunt those rules — or more accurately, to wrestle with them more fitfully — in my personal projects. Which explains the strangely out-of-place, aesthetically inconsistent arrow and plus-sign icons that you see accompanying each post at the Subtraction.com home page. They’re weird, I know; they don’t belong there. I created them a long time ago in a first draft of this current design with the thought that I’d one day replace them with something more aesthetically and usably satisfying. Never happened.
Which is my point. In the post-Aqua world where dimensionality, shading and pictorial space are mainstays of iconography, what’s a minimalist, wannabe retro-Modernist like myself to do? Short of harkening back to the nostalgia of the Susan Kare school of pixelated icons, if there’s a style of icons out there that is visually flat and pictorially restrained while also being impeccably usable, I haven’t seen it yet.+