People are very sensitive to how the icons look


Windows XP shipped with new icons for many common items in the shell, and Windows Vista will have even more and newer icons. One of the things the designers have to be careful about with drawing these icons is to make sure they don't actually look like anything. Let me clarify.

The folder icon, for example, is not based on any actual physical folder you can buy in the store. If it were a rendition of an actual folder, Windows would become vulnerable to a copyright infringement charge from the manufacturers of that folder. Instead, the manila folder icon is just something the designers made up from their fertile imagination.

As another example, Windows XP came with new icons for the drives in your My Computer folder. One company complained that the icon for removable mass storage devices too closely resembled the drive manufactured by their competitor. The designers had to go back and draft a new icon that looked even less like any actual drives out on the market, yet which users would still recognize as a removal mass storage device.

That's why icons can't look like anything.

Comments (37)
  1. Eric TF Bat says:

    This is probably advantage #1 that I and most other lone software developers have over Microsoft: we’re too small to be worth sueing over such stupid little trivialities as these.  I mean, it’s really just insane.  The hard disk looks like your competitor’s?  Really?  Then why don’t you try competing on the basis of quality and price, instead of nitpicking about icons?  Good grief!  And the same to the manilla folder makers et al.  It’s not MS’s fault that it’s a target, because the real flaw is in human nature, or at least that portion of it that exists inside lawyers’ offices and courts, but it’s really terribly stupid.  Shakespeare was right.

  2. andy says:

    too closely resembled
    Maybe you should just try to let them
    take you to court with that, and see what happends? I’ve read lot’s of
    terrible stuff about the U.S. court system, but with some luck you
    (i.e. Microsoft Corp.) win that case and won’t have to worry about this
    anymore :)

    As long as you can prove that it is a generic looking “thing” (e.g. folder, disk drive, monitor, etc).

    Btw, is this a motivation for adding more and more “hooks” to Windows for manufacturers to provide logos & icons?

    [When
    you’re a large corporation, “So sue me” is almost never the correct
    response. Especially when people get to play the “monopoly” card
    against you. And then there’s the press speculation that comes with all
    the attention. (“Is Microsoft secretly in talks to buy XYZ Corporation?
    Why else would they feature XYZ’s drives on their icons?”) -Raymond
    ]
  3. Matt Green says:

    This is amazingly inane.

    Why can’t MS go tell these companies to cry them a river?

  4. Lee says:

    Our icons look like your competitors? Cry me a river!

    You’ve got no documentation for our APIs? Cry me a river!

    We just drove you out of business in a rather cruel/evil manner? Cry me a river!

    (Please, don’t take this seriously :)

  5. James Taylor says:

    To Andy:

    Hardware manufactuerers should not overload the image icon of the individual device – imagine chaos of a Device Manager screenshot when you have fifteen different kinds of USB icons and different PCI icons…



    I can sympathise with icon designers to some extent though:

    Our project was finished last friday with the final gui taking slightly over an hour to write fully (due to the great server side software we had written). We then spent the next three hours making up an icon for it. It started off with one developer wanting something cool, technology orientated to go with the cool project, but the other developer wanting something to do with the product – an envolope or … something. Compromise? Never. Three hours… threee houurs!!! I wont get them back!!!

  6. Wang-L says:

    andy wrote

    ‘> too closely resembled

    Maybe you should just try to let them take you to court with that, and see what happends? …As long as you can prove that it is a generic looking "thing"…’

    It might not be in Microsoft’s interest to strengthen the concept of "generic things" in U.S. case law.  Next thing you know, some competitor will release an OS named "Jindows" or "Kindows" or something, and argue that "Windows" is unprotectable as a brand name because it is a generic word.

    -Wang-Lo.

  7. Krisztian Pinter says:

    it gives me an idea. if i were a hardware manufacturer, i would design my tools to be as similar to the windows icons as it is possible. marketing for free, uh?

  8. Cooney says:

    Wang-l:

    > It might not be in Microsoft’s interest to strengthen the concept of "generic things" in U.S. case law.

    Too late. Windows is a generic term and cannot be trademarked. That’s why it’s ‘Windows XP’ or ‘Microsoft Windows’.

    >  Next thing you know, some competitor will release an OS named "Jindows" or "Kindows" or something, and argue that "Windows" is unprotectable as a brand name because it is a generic word.

    Or Lindows?

    Krisztian:

    That’s one reason I don’t ever install manufacturer drivers if I can help it.

  9. xix says:

    It’s funny, cause looking at my Control Panel in XP with thumbnails and seeing the Game Controllers icon, I always thought it looked like an Xbox (1) controller and thought it was rather sneaky of MS to do that (for similar reasons as implied by the article, like giving one vendor an advantage).

    Not owning an xbox, and checking some images, I dunno, I still think it looks like some of the xbox controllers found through a google.. er, MS live image search.  Drop the analog, rearrange the button colourings, emphasize the bottom and make it purpleish.  Hmmm.  It more looks like if the xbox controller and PS3 controller had a child.

  10. Tim Marman says:

    That’s not quite true.

    Copyright protects expressive works – a painting, photograph, sculpture, etc. It is highly unlikely that a manilla folder or hard drive casing would be protected, especially when you consider that many commercial products within this space all look the same.  Furthermore, even if it was protected, the case for fair use is strong – there is a very strong expressive element in creating the icon, and it certainly doesn’t harm the market for the other product (unless, e.g., WD decided to start selling images of their hard drives!).

    This may implicate trademark law as trade dress – but functional design is generally not protected, and even though the icons are used commercially, there is no likelihood of confusion here.

  11. Mike Stewart says:

    An XBox controller?  Bah, just the generic, very-XBox-like controller MSFT has sold (or at least used to sell) for quite a while before Xbox.

  12. sOLE! says:

    I think the problem here isn’t about Copyright Infringement. It’s rather about Competitors on the same market, e.g. mass storage devices. If one Company thinks that the Icons look too much like the actual drives of their Competitor, then they might argue that Microsoft is somehow "disturbing" the Market by helping one Competitor selling their devices. And that’s illegal.

    It is the old argument about wheter MS is  misusing it’s Monopol or not. (excuse my bad english if you will, i’m not a native speaker)

  13. Dean Earley says:

    What about the Linux distros that do have hardware specific icons? Are they not subject to the copyrights as well?

  14. Cooney says:

    If one Company thinks that the Icons look too much like the actual drives of their Competitor, then they might argue that Microsoft is somehow "disturbing" the Market by helping one Competitor selling their devices. And that’s illegal.

    How does disturbing the market for hard disks constitute MS leveraging its monopoly illegally? They aren’t actually planning to sell HDs, are they?

  15. Mark Sowul says:

    The green thing is a peripheral card.  Making icons is a tricky art.  Hint: look at the control panel in "tile" view.

  16. Dean Harding says:

    I guess this explains that horrible orange-with-a-green-screen "Mobile Device" that activesync puts in your "My Computer" folder. Who in their right mind would design a PDA that’s orange with a green screen? Urgh!

  17. mikeb says:

    Sometimes too much detail in an icon is a bad thing.

    The icons I recognize almost subconsciously are usually quite simple:

    – Outlook 2003

    – Word 2003

    – Sun’s Java icon

    – IE 6

    None of these icons are pictoral representations of the thing they cause to execute (except maybe that the Java icon is a pictoral reprensentation of the Java you drink), and none of them are inherently intuitive – if one was plopped on my desktop without me knowing what it was ahead of time, I would not be able to guess.

    However, they are clear and easy to recognize, and I claim that in today’s icon-overloaded computing environment, there’s no such thing as an ‘intuitive’ icon.  They all have to be learned.  So let’s make them clear & easy to recognize rather than some sort of attempt at photorealism in a tiny 32×32 matrix.

  18. The Insider says:

    Raymond Chen tells us the truth behind the Windows icons: they can’t look like anything. You think those…

  19. peterchen says:

    Nothing against good looking icons, but what windows XP and Vista ships is no longer iconic, but paintings or blobs-of-color-trying-to-be-paintings.

    Just checking my XP: many look great if you don’t look at one in particular (or even *for* one)

    "My Music" – the note is merely a shadow in a folder. the "My Pictures" picture could be anything in a folder. The only thing that makes the control panels printer a printer is the sheet of paper coming out of it. Happily, there is "keyboard" written below the flattened sperm, or I wouldn’t dare to click it. And that’s the (artisticially well done, but IMO wrong-intentioned) stuff from microsoft, not the mosh pit many 3rd party products end up when trying to match the XP icon guidelines.

    Nothing against visual beauty, but functionality goes first for me.

    Your post certainly explains that making great icons is a optimization between many requirements.

    (sorry for the "tangetial to the topic" rant – I try to behave better next time)

  20. Dan McCarty says:

    Apparently MS icon designers have taken this concept to its ludicrous end, and today we have icons in Windows that don’t look like *anything*, literally!  At least in Win3.1 icons looked vaguely like what they were supposed to represent.  These days they’re all so generic they could be anything, or nothing.  The system tray "Add/remove hardware" icon is a good example.  What the heck is that green thing?!

    Do you really think Microsoft might get sued by Avery for an icon of a manila folder whose design is probably over a hundred years old?  Sorry Raymond, I can’t buy that.

  21. Bernhard says:

    MikeB, but the problem with the java icon is that  for me (Austrian) it wasn’t obvious for a long time, what the coffee mug should have to do with Java.

    Later I’ve learned that "Java" is some kind of synonyme for "coffee". You don’t call any coffee Java in Austria and I’m pretty shure most of our coffee is not grown in Java.

    A totally unobvious icon for people in Austria (and I guess in other parts of Europe too).

  22. As others have commented, this is indeed a niggly problem I’ve encountered with Vista – the folder icons are now so detailed they can’t be spotted (differentiated from one another) at a glance.  They no longer serve as icons in that regard.

  23. BryanK says:

    Cooney:

    > How does disturbing the market for hard disks constitute MS leveraging its monopoly illegally? They aren’t actually planning to sell HDs, are they?

    No, they are not planning on selling hard drives, but they don’t have to be.  If they’re using their monopoly position to "advertise" one manufacturer’s hard drive ("over" another manufacturer’s), that would be cause for the other manufacturer to complain.

    I think it’s crazy (IMO, all hard drives look the same, and the "look" of a drive matters much less than its functionality), but I bet there are hundreds of thousands of lawyers that would disagree with me, and be happy to take on the hard drive manufacturer’s case.  After all, they’ll get paid whether they win or lose…

  24. DriverDude says:

    The hard disk icon always made me wonder, how the average user is supposed to know what one looks like anyway? Most people don’t open their computers to install drives like they do perhiperal cards.

    Doubly so on the Mac, whose HD icon closely resembles Quantum drives – that company existed when Mac OS X was released. :=)

    The WinXP disk icon looks like a tape cartridge to me.

  25. Cooney says:

    I think it’s crazy (IMO, all hard drives look the same, and the
    “look” of a drive matters much less than its functionality), but I bet
    there are hundreds of thousands of lawyers that would disagree with me,
    and be happy to take on the hard drive manufacturer’s case.  After
    all, they’ll get paid whether they win or lose…

    MS has
    lawyers to blot out the sun (although they come off as arrogant
    jackasses, even for lawyers). If I were them, I’d thumb my nose at them
    and ask exactly how the HD icon resembles a specific HD – they pretty
    much all look alike.

    Oh yeah, ‘Icons can’t look like anything’? It is to laugh.

    [They look kind of different to me: Orb, Jaz, Zip, I’m sure there are others. -Raymond]
  26. sfb says:

    I much prefer reading the comments when your reply is in italics at the end of a comment, rather than in a separate post a page or so away from the original.

    I wonder how well radiating lines convey ‘wirelessness’ to nontechnical people.

  27. Spire says:

    Dean Harding: The orange PDA with the green screen looks almost exactly like a Handspring Visor Deluxe.

    Example photo here:

    http://www.watch.impress.co.jp/mobile/column/palm/1999/12/24/p01.jpg

    I used to use a Visor Deluxe (but mine was black).

  28. Dean Harding says:

    J. Edward Sanchez: Ha! That’s awesome! Now I want one so it matches my icon :p~

  29. mikeb says:

    Bernhard:

    The overall point of my post was that in general the icons I think are effective don’t really have any ‘intuitive’ connection to the progrma or object they represent (the Java icon was the exception in *my* case, but in your case it would not be an exception).

    I believe that for the most part icons should not try to hard to be intuitive – they aren’t going to be anyway.  There’s simply too many things to represent and too little icon real estate to have enough discernable detail.

    So, icons should do what they do best – be clear and easily recognizable.  Since they can’t be intuitive anyway, don’t bother with that.  Unless you happen to have an icon representation that can be both, but I think that’s more of a lucky coincidence than something that can be done every time.

  30. PatriotB says:

    Now let’s hope that *all* the Windows 95-era (and 3.1-era!) icons are *gone* from Vista. :-)

  31. > I much prefer reading the comments when your reply is in italics at the end of a comment

    I’m ambivalent.

    Pros:

    * Easy to associate Raymond’s rebuttal with the correct comment

    * Easy to verify that it is really Raymond’s comment, since only he can italicize text

    Cons:

    * Ease of association does not spread to further feedback after that comment

    * It feels funny to have one’s comment edited… in extreme cases I might take to PGP-signing my portion of the comment

  32. Me says:

    You think that’s a hoot? Compare the accessibility control panel icon in Windows XP to the "ease of access" icon in Windows Vista.

  33. Cooney says:

    It’d be nice if this blog got some sort of threading. Welcome to usenet ca. 1980 :)

    [As explained on the Suggestion Box page: I don’t control the blog software. Complaining to me accomplishes nothing aside from making me grumpy. -Raymond]
  34. Norman Diamond says:

    Complaining to me accomplishes nothing aside

    > from making me grumpy.

    Hey!  You complain to the rest of us several times per week, and we grumps come here to read it.

    [If you want to complain about stuff that’s
    unrelated to me, go post it on your own web site, not here. If you post
    it here, there’s an implication that you expect me to do something
    about it. -Raymond
    ]

    However, you’ll find it comforting if we observe that you grump like a man.

  35. dave says:

    That’s why icons can’t look like anything.

    In other words, icons are supposed to look like something (because that’s what they’re for – to act as a visual mnemonic) but they can’t look like anything (because of stupid legalisms).

    Still, this is no great loss as far as I’m concerned. There’s this nifty thing we have figured out, called ‘language’, which allows the construction of unique identifications of things. Avoids all that point-and-grunt stuff. It’s great!

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