UI Icons – Friendly vs. Powerful

Origins of early UI icons

When adding UI images to sites you usually adhere to common standards. Why confuse users by replacing the triangle for a “play” button? But where did these standards come from? What if you had free rein?

In a recent Susan Kare interview, the designer talks about the goals and influences of the earliest Mac icons.

It was explained to me that the Mac’s intended audience was non-technical…I interpreted “personal” and non-technical to mean that it would be good if symbols were based on everyday objects…My favorite icon is the smiling Mac; it was designed to give a friendly first onscreen image. I also like the bomb, which is irreverent because I was told it would almost never be seen…In general, I’m a believer in symbols that are easy to recognize, and limit excessive detail. It’s more about conveying meaning at a glance than any particular style.


I think it is interesting to contrast her icons with some of the others in the graph below. (See them up close.) While they are recognizable, I’d argue that is due to the fact that we have been around them for so long. They were probably not intended to be friendly. Maybe they are meant to evoke more power than anything else? The runes and tridents that they are based are mythological rather than everyday. They are streamlined and universal. But I think part of us would prefer them to be more personal. The “spinning wait cursor” is also called the “spinning beach ball of death”. The colors contribute, but like the Mac bomb, spinning beach balls may make crashes slightly more tolerable.

– via sofyay

Explore more visuals like this one on the web’s largest information design community, Visually.

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