The design community has been all aflutter since Adobe revealed the icon system that will identify and unify both the Adobe and the newly-acquired Macromedia applications. There have been varying opinions on the subject; some designers approve of the new icons (Veerle Pieters) while others (Jason Santa Maria, Dave Shea) heartily disapprove of them.
The detractors have pointed out a number of usability problems such as heavy reliance on color for identification, forcing users to read the icons’ “elemental abbreviation” before discerning what application it belongs to, scalability issues, etc. This is all very valid and useful to bring to light, to be sure. What I haven’t heard discussed is the emotional impact of the new icon set.
The Adobe Creative Suite 2 icons have been some of my favorites. They hold up under the dry, necessary requirements that the new set has problems with, but they fill and even more important emotional role.
We creative professionals look at these icons every single day (and even on weekends). Our lives are built on creative thinking. Our clients pay us for visually stunning work, scalable ideas and problem solving skills. When I look at my CS2 icons, I feel that creativity. Adobe gets me. They understand that my value is in the details. Creatives relish the details. When I load up a CS2 application, it feels good to see that elegant feather, that bright blossom or that colorful butterfly on my screen. These shapes, colors and images remind me that even if I am constructing an imageless style guide, my work is creative, and my software acknowledges that creativity.
I, like what seems to be a majority of creative professionals, saw the new Photoshop icon when downloading and installing the CS3 beta and — without flinching — summarily dismissed it as a utilitarian placeholder. No question. No doubt. Upon reading the news that this new icon was actually the final version, and that the majority of icons across the Adobe product line had been converted to this style, I was amazed and disappointed. My brain didn’t even make it far enough to point out usability issues. I was stuck on the feeling. “These icons don’t express creativity at all. Wait, are they serious? This is the Creative Suite? Really, are they serious? I’m sad and confused.”
Call me crazy, but I was actually sad. I’m not so in love with feathers, butterflies, and blossoms that I can’t accept anything else. On the contrary, a renewing and refreshing of identities is healthy for products. We’re seeing a lot of that these days. My problem with Adobe’s new icons is the feeling they project. They feel like placeholders. They feel cheap. They feel “beta”. And, most tragically, they feel uncreative. Could there be a more egregious sin that a creative software maker could commit against its people than to install an identity that feels uncreative?
I’ll be interested to see how this new icon strategy translates to packaging, marketing, and identity for the products. When I look at the icons in my dock, I see branding. The colors, shapes and visual representations of objects — more often than not — is part of an identity system that transcends the icon itself and even the electronic medium it inhabits. We haven’t seen any packaging or other print materials for the new Adobe line, so it’s hard to say if the icons were the result of higher-level branding exercises or not. I certainly hope so, because creating a brand identity system from an icon set strikes me as a sure way to impotence.
Perhaps we might have been a bit assuaged if Adobe had revealed this icon set as a part of their total marketing and identity strategy for the new product suites. I guess we’ll never know. I’m sad to think of the years I’ll have to suffer through this terribly uninspired and flawed icon (and possibly full-on branding) identity. It is, after all, more than a feeling; it’s part of my everyday life.