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Writers' Talk

Writers' Talk With Corey Marion of the Iconfactory

by Derrick Story

Mac OS X is not only changing our approach to writing application code, it's also forcing us to rethink every aspect of application design ... including our approach to branding and icons.

As part of this change, Apple has come out with some rather strict guidelines for icon design for Mac OS X applications. Based on some of the feedback forums at WWDC, many developers seem to feel that the design ante is a bit too stiff for new applications, and that they are being asked to devote resources to creating designs without reaping the branding benefits that should come with those investments.

Apple is pushing back saying that the success of the Mac OS X UI depends on users being able to figure out what type of application is showing in the dock, or anywhere else, at a mere glance. Developers push back saying that sounds great in theory, but that product branding for their programs is more important.

In this week's Writers' Talk, we're in search of a middle ground. We've invited Corey Marion of the Iconfactory to chat with Alan Graham. I'm Derrick Story, and I'll be moderating the session.

Corey is a North Carolina native and a graduate of the School of Fine Arts at Appalachian State University. He has over 12 years of experience in the graphic design industry and is the founder of the Iconfactory, the best source for cool freeware icons for the Mac for more than 5 years. He's also a partner and senior designer at The Iconfactory Corporation, a design group specializing in icon, user interface and interactive design.

Alan writes the ongoing Aqua column for the Mac DevCenter and is keenly interested in this subject. All three of us recently attended the WWDC in San Jose, CA.

So, let's chat about Apple's guidelines, branding, designing icons, and what ever else comes to mind ...

OReillyMac: Welcome Corey. Tell us a little bit about the iconfactory.

iconfactorycorey: The freeware/shareware web site has been around since 1995

iconfactorycorey: As of January 2000 we were incorporated

iconfactorycorey: And now we maintain the sites (which includes, and a windows icon site at

iconfactorycorey: We have well over 100 free downloadable Mac icon sets, 3 shareware apps, and we provide daily updated industry news

Comment on this articleLet's talk about icons. This is such a big part of Mac OS X, yet a real challenge for most of us. What are your thoughts?
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Also in Writers' Talk:

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Talking About Life With Mac OS X

iconfactorycorey: To keep everything running, we provide professional icon and UI design services for software companies all over the world

alanosx: Mostly Win or Mac?

iconfactorycorey: probably about 50/50

iconfactorycorey: mostly tool bar style icons for windows apps, more desktop icon design for the Mac OS

alanosx: I see.

alanosx: I suppose there are a lot of cross platform apps?

iconfactorycorey: Yes, sometimes that can be a real challenge

iconfactorycorey: Smooth 32 bit icons for the Mac and clunky Windows palette 8 bit icons for the PC equivalent

alanosx: That would be quite a challenge.

alanosx: Any improvement with XP?

iconfactorycorey: Yes, Windows has now caught up with Mac OS 8.5

alanosx: Ha.

iconfactorycorey: 32 bit icons, 8 bit masks, 48x48s too

OReillyMac: Let's talk about how Aqua is impacting your work Corey.

alanosx: At WWDC, Apple stressed the importance of building high quality icons for OS X...

alanosx: They recommend that engineers hire graphic designers to handle their UI and icon design...

alanosx: Why all of a sudden the concern with design?

iconfactorycorey: Apple (Steve) has spent so much time on the details that they want to control the look of the OS as much as possible

iconfactorycorey: They keep user customization to a bare minimum and propose guidelines for UI design to keep the entire User Experience as "Apple" as possible

alanosx: Will we see Apple bend or break on this?

alanosx: A lot of people at WWDC were upset by this.

iconfactorycorey: yes I know, i was in the Aqua feedback forum

alanosx: The "blood bath?" Me too.

iconfactorycorey: Yep, I remember you proposed O'Reilly doing a book on Aqua

iconfactorycorey: Good idea

alanosx: Shameless plug.

OReillyMac: Sounding like a better idea each passing day ...

iconfactorycorey: something that goes beyond Apple guidelines and uses some real examples of how people pushed the guidelines successfully

alanosx: Yeah...AHIG is a desert of info...sparse.

alanosx: Example, I thought 128x128 was I find it isn't enough in some instances.

alanosx: With more room to work, I have found many more limits when working in photo-realism.

alanosx: Are you finding any challenges when building icons for X?

iconfactorycorey: The biggest challenge we have found with 128x128 is detail

iconfactorycorey: knowing when enough is enough

alanosx: YEah...because scaling is a beast...and unforgiving.

iconfactorycorey: A lot of users will never see the 128s

iconfactorycorey: Hints (at 48,32,16) currently work in the finder which helps, but not in the dock

iconfactorycorey: supposedly it is coming

iconfactorycorey: developers see that they have 16,384 pixels to work with now instead of just 1,024

alanosx: I found a lot of difficulty bridging the line between detail, the Apple Guidelines...and branding.

iconfactorycorey: and they want to use them all

alanosx: And I have seen very few developers following the guidelines.

iconfactorycorey: Branding is a huge issue with our clients

alanosx: I'll bet.

alanosx: Were you at the Icon seminar?

iconfactorycorey: yes I was

alanosx: They want developers to build their brand in with a sample of the media handled in the background...

alanosx: almost impossible to get a lot of detail...or sometimes any in that.

iconfactorycorey: Apple actually showed some mock-up of ways to address branding

iconfactorycorey: Some worked well

alanosx: I saw them...yes some did...but I suspect those were the best ones they had.

iconfactorycorey: You can replace the tool in the icon with the brand and keep the media

iconfactorycorey: or make the media as specific as possible to the app (a spreadsheet for Microsoft Excel for example) and keep the tool

alanosx: Except when you scale the icon...

iconfactorycorey: exactly

alanosx: you get to a point in the system...where it is a meaningless little blob. That is where detail becomes noise.

iconfactorycorey: therefore the client wants the brand as big as possible

iconfactorycorey: The IE icon in X is a great example

alanosx: Can't miss it.

iconfactorycorey: it is simply an Aquafied version of the old one

alanosx: Same with AIM.

iconfactorycorey: A lot of clients want that, for good reason

alanosx: with Apple's desire to have these genres...

alanosx: and the emotive qualities they want to address and get across...

alanosx: it is ignored for the large part so far...

alanosx: do you think that will continue?

alanosx: has the genre battle already been lost...?

alanosx: Or is Apple just doing a poor job of communicating the message?

iconfactorycorey: A novice user may be thinking "I need to write a letter" and see the TextEdit icon

iconfactorycorey: they should understand it immediately

alanosx: right.

iconfactorycorey: but a poweruser is looking for a familiar app

iconfactorycorey: not a concept

iconfactorycorey: I need Photoshop now!

iconfactorycorey: What the hell is that photo with the pencil on it?

alanosx: and there is the issue with similarity...

iconfactorycorey: exactly

alanosx: in can have to apps that have similar icons...

alanosx: but they have different functions...and are different brands...can easily be confused.

iconfactorycorey: Plus you can have very important apps that are classified as utilities

alanosx: Not every word processor should look similar to TextEdit.

alanosx: right.

iconfactorycorey: so they seem to be second class citizens

iconfactorycorey: Norton Utlilies, Stuffit Deluxe

alanosx: also...I think that in theory... genres is a solid idea...until you put it in practice... it becomes much more complicated

iconfactorycorey: I think it works well for apps that ship with OS X

OReillyMac: I have a question then ...

OReillyMac: If I'm a developer ready to market a new OS X app ... and it's time to design my icons ... do I follow the strict Apple standards as they exist now ... do I contact a consultant such as Iconfactory, or do I punt?

alanosx: Go for the conversion.

iconfactorycorey: You should absolutely contact the Iconfactory, no question about it :-)

alanosx: Or read my columns on the OReilly network.

OReillyMac: (two shameless plugs in one question!)

iconfactorycorey: We can help decipher the AHIG and try our best to apply them to your icon design

alanosx: I think budget is one issue...

alanosx: if you can't afford to hire an outside firm...and many small developers are in this boat...

alanosx: and it can be difficult deciphering the guidelines...

alanosx: I've seen some terrible icons.

alanosx: But if you can afford to hire a firm...I highly recommend it.

alanosx: I hate software companies with budgets who opt for the cheap road...

iconfactorycorey: I don't think you can afford not to hire someone

iconfactorycorey: especially if you have no designers on staff

alanosx: expensive software with bad icons looks cheap.

iconfactorycorey: the least we can do is take your artwork, make suggestions and create the resources for your developer

alanosx: it is important for people to understand that icons aren't just on the desktop...

alanosx: remember that icons pertains to tool bars and palettes as well...

alanosx: people will judge the app on the design.

OReillyMac: How early in the process should you be thinking about this?

iconfactorycorey: As soon as you know the kind of app you are building

OReillyMac: So this is a parallel process to the actual code development?

iconfactorycorey: It should be, but it usually isn't

iconfactorycorey: Your finder icon is the first thing a user sees

OReillyMac: What's the biggest mistake you see developers make?

iconfactorycorey: Starting too late in the process so there is not time to develop icons

iconfactorycorey: And obviously not hiring designers to do the UI design

alanosx: You know the remark that stuck with me from WWDC...

alanosx: is when an engineer got up and said:

alanosx: "Designing icons for OS X was the hardest part of the development."

alanosx: Designers of the world unite!

iconfactorycorey: We try to make it easier by offloading that burden

iconfactorycorey: for a small fee of course ;-)

OReillyMac: So let's look into our crystal ball for a moment ... and wrap up with a look at the direction that design is heading

OReillyMac: What changes do you see for iconfactory as a result of Mac OS X?

iconfactorycorey: A lot of jobs creating fewer icons that take more time

alanosx: Where is this heading...can you guess...meaning...

alanosx: with the attention to detail...any ideas as to the future of the OS and Hardware?

iconfactorycorey: a lot more time in Freehand

OReillyMac: :-)

alanosx: It seems Apple is building a lot of room for growth here...and it all points to media.

iconfactorycorey: Now that the software looks as flashy and as slick as Apple's hardware

iconfactorycorey: I think they will add more user customizable features ... if not, developers will

alanosx: II think I see hints towards animated icons as well. They'll really need your services then!!!

iconfactorycorey: They did refer quite frequently to animated icons at WWDC

iconfactorycorey: but in am informational context, like

iconfactorycorey: showing you how many messages are waiting

alanosx: Developer heed this warning...out-source!

alanosx: Sometimes... it is hard to know all that your app can and will do...until you know what it looks like. iconfactorycorey: l'm just thinking about IconBuilder

alanosx: Oh yeah...I tried that out.

iconfactorycorey: What did you think?

alanosx: I really liked it...

alanosx: It is a really helpful tool...

alanosx: especially for me when it comes to the final compositing of the icon...

alanosx: I do all my graphics work in 9...

alanosx: why go to X to test it out?

iconfactorycorey: We can help your app be a "good citizen" in OS X starting with the icon

alanosx: Prefer to use Photoshop anyway...and it works as a plug in.

alanosx: Great preview tools as well.

iconfactorycorey: It started an internal tool to make it easier for us

alanosx: It brings the best of Icon Browser...and Composer together in many respects.

iconfactorycorey: gradually got to the commercial quality level and is very popular with designers

alanosx: And it works for Windows icons too!

iconfactorycorey: you are in Photoshop anyway, why drop out to another editor?

alanosx: Exactly.

iconfactorycorey: new version coming soon with XP support and a few other new features

iconfactorycorey: no need to deal with masks, IconBuilder does it for you

OReillyMac: OK guys ...

OReillyMac: this has been terrific

alanosx: Thanks for stopping by Corey.

iconfactorycorey: Thanks for inviting me!

OReillyMac: Alright. It's a wrap!

Derrick Story is the author of The Photoshop CS4 Companion for Photographers, The Digital Photography Companion, and Digital Photography Hacks, and coauthor of iPhoto: The Missing Manual, with David Pogue. You can follow him on Twitter or visit

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