The App Icon

The new Pixel phones by Google have started shipping, and one feature of the new phone is a redesigned home-screen which favors round icons:


Photo from The Verge

Android has previously been known for allowing any arbitrary silhouette to go in their icons. There have been guidelines for how app icons should be sized and how they should look, but these guidelines haven’t been enforced, leading to a metaphorical wild west of competing standards:


Incidentally, the new Pixel homescreen applies icon normalization, which resizes icons that do not follow guidelines:


Icon normalization isn’t perfect either, though, and it also doesn’t prevent app builders from creating wildly different icons. The move to round icons feels like a last ditch attempt at reaching for some kind of consistency in app icons, even if the icons themselves lose a great deal of creativity in the translation:


Icons from Android Police

The thing is, outside of doing basic icon normalization, the Pixel phones don’t enforce the round icons, so unless a developer actually makes one, you’ll still end up with a mix of styles.

There Is No Single Style

Having consistent and beautiful app icons throughout an operating system is a beautiful dream, one that I’m sure many designers have had. But so long as app developers have to provide this icon themselves, the styles are going to vary as much as all human art does. It’s human nature, it’s an expression of individuality, a difference in taste, and a result of varying degrees of design time invested.

It might even be done intentionally for differentiation. While having an icon that blends in, fits, looks right among the other icons on the platform might make users happy, the app developers might want their icon to stand out (even if like a sore thumb), scream to the sky: look at me, my developers have families to feed, launch me.

Many attempts have been made at producing consistency where none is found, icon normalization is just one of them. Samsung phones put all icons on a squircle badge, Xiaomi phones offer multiple approaches ranging from badging and masking to replacing icons with huge icon packs to replace every icon on your homescreen.

Perhaps the most successful approach has been that of the iPhone, and probably due to the rather strict limitations imposed: no transparency, therefore no custom silhuettes. Every icon gets cropped into a rounded rectangle. Even then, icons on the iPhone differ wildly in style.

The story is the same on Windows and macOS. Windows 8 and 10 courageously tried to retire the app icon in favor of live tiles that could even be resized, so the user had more control of the aesthetics, and recommending flat white, fairly easily designed motifs:


Spot the odd one out

… but even then,  no matter how specific your guidelines for app icon designs are, designers can choose to not follow them.

Even if the guidelines were enforced, I suppose, there’s no guarantee the results would be consistent.

The Why of App Icons

It’s always prudent to ask the question: what problems are we trying to solve? Why are there app icons in the first place? I suspect Microsoft asked the same question, leading them to try live tiles.

The obvious answer is that app icons exist because apps exist, and apps work in a specific way. Your operating system provides a platform on which an app runs, and it’s then the job of the app to solve problems, give information, make you productive. If you need to write text, you open a writing app. If you need to edit photos, you open a photo editing app. This is how it’s always been. But will it stay this way?

We have to go deeper!

Why did you want to write text? Why did you want to edit a photo? What happens to the text when you’re done writing, are you going to send it somewhere, publish it? What happens to the photo when you’re done editing?

What if the operating system was intent-based instead of just a platform for a wild west of apps? You want to call someone, use the operating system dialer, but use it with WhatsApp. Want to make a reminder? Use voice actions, but save it in Evernote. Want to listen to music? Press the play button, which you mapped to Spotify instead of Apple Music.

We’re getting ahead of ourselves, and I still have that upcoming post about how apps might look in the future — Update: here’s that post. But the point is — perhaps app icons don’t really matter in the future. Perhaps the platforms of the future finally break the shackles of “a grid of icons” and relieve us of the menial tasks of jumping in and out of apps. In such a future, perhaps an app doesn’t even need an icon — perhaps the app is more like a plugin that hooks into touch points of the operating system, replacing or giving alternatives to what’s already there.

Keeping such a future in mind, it’s hard not to look at Google’s round-icon efforts and smile like a loving parent: aaw that’s so cute, bless your heart for trying!

I like round icons. I like silhouetted icons. I like really well-designed icons, and I love that Google and Microsoft are trying their best to foster consistency among app icons. But perhaps the battle won’t be relevant in a few years. There will still be good designs and bad designs, of course, but perhaps that battle won’t be fought on your homescreen or desktop.


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