Why are only some of the Windows 7 system notification icons colorless?

André decided to play "gotcha" by noting that not all of the notification icons went colorless and wondered what the criteria was for deciding which ones to make colorless and which ones to make colorful.

It's very simple: The design team generated colorless versions of the most commonly-seen notification icons. They didn't have the time to generate colorless versions of all notification icons, so they focused on the ones that gave them the most benefit.

This is the standard tradeoff you have to make whenever you have finite resources. Eventually the marginal cost of redrawing one more icon exceeds its marginal benefit, at which point you stop. The marginal cost is measured not only in actual resources (designers can redraw only so many icons per day, and you have money to hire only so many designers) but also in opportunity cost (time spent redrawing icons to be colorless is time not spent on other design tasks).

This is the same reason that not all icons in Windows XP were given the full-color perspective-view treatment. For example, nearly all of the icons in the Administrative Tools section are the old Windows 2000-style 16-color flat (or isometric) icons. The design team focused on the 100ish most commonly used icons and went to the effort of redrawing them in the Windows XP style. The more rarely-used icons were left in the old style because the cost of converting them did not merit the benefit.

The same thing happened in Windows Vista, when the icon design changed yet again. The style became less stylized and more realistic, but not quite photorealistic, and the angle of presentation changed. The design team had the resources to convert the most commonly used icons, and the rest were left as they were.

It's the Pareto Principle again. If you have finite resources (and who doesn't) you may find that you can get 80% of the benefit by doing only 20% of the work. And that leaves 80% of your capacity available to address some other problem.

Comments (51)
  1. Juan says:

    Note for non developers. It because a botched job they made. They ask you to pay beta products instead of take care of details because who doesn't buy Windows anyways?

  2. SCB says:

    How do you measure "most commonly used"?

  3. JustSomeGuy says:

    Maybe MS might want to just stop stuffing around with minor things like icon designs in every release :-)

  4. DebugErr says:

    Regarding Windows Vista, I wonder why the icon style changed so often from Longhorn to RTM. Take the yellow folder for example. They were darker, edgier and also in another perspective at first. Eventually they turned out to be the brighter rounder yellow ones we know today. Isn't that a waste of ressources which could've easily been spent on redesigning the other 2000/XP icons (like the uninstall software icon in the command bar as a popular example)?

    Also, didn't Microsoft hire Foood Icons (now Iconaholic) to create a base set of Vista icons which MS then just used to combine icons together?

  5. Rick C says:

    @SCB my first guess would be the CEIP.

  6. dave says:

    While I'm generally sympathetic to the issues of large-scale software development,

    1.  How hard is it to remove colour from an icon? Ah, but perhaps more "redesign" is needed. As a programmer, I am familiar with (and somewhat prone to) the phenomenon of obsessive refactoring of code for no user benefit.  Fiddling with icon design seems to me to be the same sort of thing.

    2.  As a counter to the Pareto principle, I'd say why even start the redesign if it was clear that the "20%" of unfinished work would still be sufficiently large to be noticeable?  Do the job or don't do it, I don't care: but let's not go for half-arsed by design.

    Obviously, my viewpoint is that we didn't for nothing spend all these millions of years evolving into a species with written languages...

  7. Sockatume says:

    The example that Andre gave is the little eject-USB-device icon; were USB flash drives just not particularly popular around MS at the time the "redraw these icons" list was being compiled? (I recall them taking off around 2007-ish, by which point it's conceivable that the decision would have already been made.)

    This would seem to be one of those classic Microsoft-Apple differences, where you have sprawl and the need to triage versus a more restricted project and the opportunity to do everything to the same standard.

  8. Brian_EE says:

    I note that Microsoft Lync 2013's tray^H^H^H^H notification icon isn't monochromatic. Hell, it doesn't even handle alpha channel properly (white center). Apparently that team didn't get the memo.

    [Lync is not part of Windows, so they wouldn't have been sent the memo anyway. -Raymond]
  9. spork says:

    I don't think they reinvent the icons frequently enough, but that's just me.

    @dave: flattening the color to grayscale is easy but still need to review them.  You could end up with a big gray blob where you once had a distinct color separation, so need to come back and check edges, etc.

  10. Fred says:

    @dave "As a programmer" you don't understand how much work it actually takes to produce an OS icon. You need to create an icon that works at every resolution supported by the OS, then make sure that each of those sizes works at every bit depth supported by the OS. Crack open a .ico file sometime.

    You're probably one of those guys who also says "why is that bug still there, how hard can it be to change a single line of code?"

  11. laonianren says:

    @Fred.  You over-estimate the effort actually spent on icon design.

    Take a look at the icons in explorer or notepad in Windows 7.  Many of these were redesigned and include an anti-aliased, 256x256 variant.  The other variants have been mechanically downscaled from this and, unsurprisingly, the 4bpp variants are ugly as sin.  Nobody has spent any design time on this.

  12. Phil W says:

    Icons also need to be acceptable in every culture that Windows supports. If you want a universal icon for something you need it vetting to make sure it isn't accidentally offensive.

  13. alegr1 says:

    I wonder what was the justification for all-caps menus in Visual Studio 2012+. How did it go over -100 points? Any arguments for it would subtract points, anyway.

    [Nice hijack there. -Raymond]
  14. @alegr1: That's a UI team decision, so it probably operates using different metrics instead of the -100 points analysis that's used by the programming teams.  Most likely they did it so that Visual Studio met the Metro design language, which Microsoft was rolling out across all of its products.  You even see the all-caps menus in the Microsoft Office programs, so it's not specific to Visual Studio at all.  Not that I like it (I think I was the one that filed a complaint on Microsoft Connect, can't remember anymore), but oh well.  Maybe the next time around they'll restore regular casing in menus and set all your content to capital letters instead.

  15. Azarien says:

    @alegr1: perhaps similar capitalization done in Office 2013 around the same time.

    In pre-release VS2012 it was not the main menu, but docking windows (SOLUTION EXPLORER etc.) that were capitalized. I can imagine that the VS team got a "you must have ALL-CAPS!" notice, and they were wondering where to put them ;-)

    Personally, I like this all-caps menu.

  16. dave says:

    >You're probably one of those guys who also says "why is that bug still there, how hard can it be to change a single line of code?"

    I am, having observed that more effort gets spent on discussing why a bug doesn't get fixed than on actually fixing the bug.

    In my own code I actually have an idea of "how hard" it is to fix it, and a fairly precise feeling for the effect of making the change. It doesn't seem unreasonable to expect the same from other programmers.

    [Do you also have an idea of how risky the fix is? What is the likelihood that fixing this bug will expose another bug, or affect an externally-visible behavior that somebody else was relying on (perhaps inadvertently)? Maybe somebody was relying on your memory leak. (I've seen it happen.) -Raymond]
  17. NoP says:

    Funny, I have always been under the impression that you (as in Microsoft) wanted to separate system icons from the garbage most vendors throw at Windows users.

  18. morlamweb says:

    I noticed that even the flat-monochrome system notification icons sometimes have color.  Take,for example, the Volume icon.  Normally it's flat white icon with 0-3 curved lines to the right of it to roughly indicate the sound volume.  When it's muted, though, the icon displays a small red & white crossed circle.  In Win8 this changed to a red circle with a white X.  So color is still used in the system notification area icons, just much more sparingly compared to the notification icons in the XP era.

  19. Anon says:


    I'm glad to discover I'm not alone in noticing that 90% of the time spent fixing a bug is devoted to discussing how it will be too difficult/expensive/time-consuming to fix. Also known as the Rodney McKay Theory of Engineering

  20. Anonymous Coward says:

    I think the biggest drawback of all this is that if you look at the icons on a Windows 8 computer, the overall impression is ugly as sin. Not because its icon style is inherently worse, but because it's an incoherent incongruous hotchpotch.

    The Windows XP icon style may not be hip enough in the eyes of 8's visual designers, but somehow when XP was released, the new icon coverage was much better. Whether they actually got around to redrawing more icons or whether they prioritised better I don't know.

    The XP icons may not look like they would have looked if XP had been released today, but they still look good even now. A bit like a classic sports car still looks good today.

  21. Random User 24576345 says:

    morlamweb: I'm not finding the specific reference right now, but I believe the guidelines suggested monochrome for passive "I'm here" type icons, adding color when there is something more the user should be aware of. Whether "the sound is muted" qualifies is a matter of opinion, I suppose. And after all, guidelines are guidelines; not laws.

  22. Raphael says:

    I would also like to point out that the white icons (sound, network, battery) are also the icons you want to have permanently visible, unlike, say, the remove hardware or Windows Update icon, the latter of which is actually justified in drawing attention to itself.

  23. laonianren says:

    My previous comment gives the impression that the poor quality 4bpp icons represent shoddy workmanship, but this is not so.

    Windows 7 doesn't support 8bpp displays, let alone 4bpp, so the ugly icons can't be seen under normal circumstances.  I guess they exist only for compatibility with old third-party software.

    New icons seem to have at most two real variants.  The 256x256 32bpp design, and a separate 16x16 32bpp variant if the big icon won't scale down this far.  All the other variants are scaled down (in size or colour or both) from these two.

  24. Other side of the coin says:

    What if the 20% benefit you don't get is the most important?  *cough* Windows 8 *cough*

  25. morlamweb says:

    @Random User 24576345: I think these are the design guidlines to which you refer:



    Those guidelines don't explicitly state that notification icons haves to be colorless, just be simple and easily discernable: "Keep the designs simple—prefer symbols over realistic images."

  26. @laonianren: It's possible to see 8bpp using RDP, compatibility modes, or LiveMeeting, but 4bpp is pretty much gone nowadays.  I don't think many computers are restricted to the EGA standard anymore. :-)

  27. Nico says:

    > I wonder what was the justification for all-caps menus in Visual Studio 2012+.

    I imagine it was for the same reason that Visual Studio's default (and for a time, the only) color theme was completely flat with no separation between UI elements, and apparently an irrational hatred of contrast: Both were done so that it would mesh with Metro.  It was probably an attempt to subconsciously push developers into becoming comfortable with that mess.

    Stuff like the all caps menus are what happens when you let a "UX designer" off their leash.  You get poo on the carpet.

  28. Nick says:

    @MNGoldenEagle: They got the memo. blogs.msdn.com/.../update-3-release-candidate-for-visual-studio-2013.aspx (Find "ALL CAPS")

  29. Yuhong Bao says:

    @MNGoldenEagle: It is actually still there as a fallback in Win7 and older when VESA VBE is not available, but that is also rare nowadays.

  30. T. West says:

    Wow, the snark is on high today.  Anyway, even Apple's touted switch to flat everything was filled with examples where they just didn't have the time.

    On a smaller scale, I don't think I know of any companies I worked with that were determined to do *everything* right that are still in business.  

    Of course, going too far the other way, "Ship it and let them flee like the dogs they are!" doesn't work too well either :-)

  31. Johnny Leung says:

    Steve Job's obsession in detail make the different. You will never see this coming out from Apple. If you are going to redesign the icons, it will be either all of them or none of them. And that's make the differet....

    ["Anyway, even Apple's touted switch to flat everything was filled with examples where they just didn't have the time." -Raymond]
  32. 640k says:

    @Azarien: "Personally, I like this all-caps menu."

    When everything is special (CAPS), nothing is.

    @ Johnny Leung:

    All dialogs in a OS/environment should of course be updated to the latest and greatest ui theme. Consistency is king. That's why ms' gui are called ugly by ordinary people.

  33. Muzer_ says:

    Caps are harder to read. It's why road signs (in sensible countries) use mixed case. This is well-known. Perhaps the people who designed the Ribbon UI want to make out that skim-reading menu items is hard so as to further advance the Ribbon... more likely someone thought mixed-case looked so last century and I'm just being cynical ;)

  34. xpclient says:

    Too bad the functionality regressions of the notification area icons introduced from XP -> NT6 were never fixed. They got worse with each Windows release.

  35. Azarien says:

    @Muzer_: caps are harder to read for some because you rarely read more than single words in caps. But I don't have that problem. I can read caps.

  36. Neil says:

    I seem to remember it used to be 4bpp, but what colour depth does Safe mode use these days?

  37. Mike Dimmick says:

    @Nick: They didn't fix it. They added an option. Now they have to support both the option turned on, and the option turned off - wasting test time they could be using to support actual features.

    They should have reacted to the feedback by getting rid of all caps - and they should have done it before VS 2012 RTM. I've left a comment recommending that the option is removed along with the ALL CAPS.

  38. Marc K says:

    This is an example of the different perceptions between coporations and end users.  Corportations says "Resources were finite.  We couldn't afford to hire another designer."  But, end users read that as "We cut corners to save money."  Isn't Windows hugely profitable for Microsoft?  The idea that hiring one more (or even a dozen more) designers would turn Windows profitability negative doesn't seem realistic.  

    [By this logic, Windows should hire an infinite number of designers, developers, testers, translators, etc. There's always something more that could be done. -Raymond]
  39. Anon says:


    "I can X" != "X is easy."

    "X is difficult" != "I have a problem with X"

    Theoretical quantum mechanics is difficult. Feynman appeared to have no difficulty doing the calculations, does that mean theoretical quantum mechanics suddenly became easy enough for children?

  40. Nick says:

    @Mike Dimmick: They didn't add an option, they exposed an option. There was already a registry key that toggled this and the new checkbox just gives you a supported way of toggling that value.

  41. Dave Bacher says:

    I'm a little unclear on the line here.

    Microsoft does not have the money to hire a couple extra graphics designers from community college, desperate for work, who would love to work for Microsoft and have that on their work history when they go for other employment.

    However, they do have the money to rent a shark tank and divers, and drop an Xbox One to the bottom of the tank in multiple locations.  

    I know, I know, marketing has no connection to the real world.  But I'm pretty sure that money would have been better spent getting a second manufacturing company involved and pushing out more units.  Can't sell more than you build.



    Basically, here's how it went.  

    Disclaimer: I am not a Microsoft employee, and never have been.

    Manager> Hey guys, UI team says we need to go to all caps.

    QA> Oh my Goodness, but that will break every regression test we've accumulated since 1990!  We can't do that.  Plus the localization nightmare of changing 100+ locales.

    C guy> No problem!  I'll add a strupr as we add the menu items.  Since we know that'll break our regressions, we'll just put a registry flag to control it.

    ... fast forward a year ...

    Programmer A> Stupid Microsoft, stupid Microsoft, stupid Microsoft.  Why did you change my letters to all caps.  Grrr, and I need to go to regedit and fix my plug in's registration.  Hey, wait a minute what's this "DisplayMenusInCaps" thing hanging out here.  Hey guys, look we found a way to fix our menus!

    Programmer B> Thank you Thank you Thank you

    ... then a few months ...

    Manager> Just add a damn checkbox, I hate my life.  Can someone get me some of whatever marketing was smoking with the whole shark tank thing?

  42. Juan says:

    "[Do you also have an idea of how risky the fix is? What is the likelihood that fixing this bug will expose another bug, or affect an externally-visible behavior that somebody else was relying on (perhaps inadvertently)? Maybe somebody was relying on your memory leak. (I've seen it happen.) -Raymond]"

    Maybe Microsoft should really document everything including those things that actually it denies and have more control about the quality of the apps that are available. If the user relies on a undocumented feature that it turns out to be a bug that you decide to convert to a feature well. It's your own problem and maybe Microsoft shouldn't had certified that program. Since when Microsoft certifies its programs? Never! but it really should start to do it.

    [How do you prove that a program doesn't rely on undocumented behavior? Somebody has a use-after-free bug, but it is masked by a cache. The program inadvertently relies on the caching policy. Or somebody has a window procedure that sets a flag when it receives message X and checks it when it receives message Y. It now relies on message X being sent before message Y. How can you prove that a program doesn't have these sorts of dependencies? -Raymond]
  43. Michael Burgwin says:


    That's quite silly. In contrast, one of the products I develop (as the primary developer) is an Updater which is pretty central to our deployment process.

    At one point, one of my co-workers pointed out a minor bug. It was a simple fix. I thought I had a fairly precise feeling for the effect of making the change.

    So in a way, I thought much like you. Just fix it. Why wax about wondering what that change will do if it will fix the issue?

    Until that "change" ended up costing thousands in lost man hours for our customers as well as our support staff and engineering team. All of which could have been avoided if in fact there was more than "I found this bug" "ok cool I'll fix it" and instead there was some discussion on the repercussions of the change and how it would effect other components of the system.

  44. dave says:

    >Do you also have an idea of how risky the fix is?

    Of course I do, and I have a very long resume to back up my judgement.

  45. JJJ says:

    @Dave Bacher:  Raymond's point is not that Microsoft is hard-up for money, but rather that at some point the cost exceeds the benefit.  I bet that in fact the money was much better spent on shark tanks and miscellaneous marketing stunts than hiring a designer to re-do obscure icons.

  46. Veltas says:

    Well that's interesting because I actually would have argued from a design perspective. The only icons that typically get displayed in the notification area without being hidden are the ones which were made colourless and I think it fits well with the look of the task bar. If the Windows Update icon suddenly becomes visible and looks contrasted to the rest of the icons isn't that a good thing? Also I can't imagine a colourless version of the Update icon that would actually look good and actually represent Windows Update at a glance (but then again I'm not an icon designer, maybe figuring that out is the cost mentioned?).

    However, I'm open-minded to the possibility Raymond actually knows better on an experience or anecdotal basis. :S

  47. Miles Archer says:

    Let's not redo the icons again because of fashion.

  48. Mc says:

    ... and the reason MS has lots of money is because they've been taking these sensible cost vs benefit decisions for a while.

  49. immibis says:

    @Mc: I'm surprised that it's a sensible cost vs benefit decision to redesign the icons, and at least one other major UI component, in every version.

  50. That's kind of terrible. says:

    As others brought up, Vista was in development for-ever. That wasn't enough time to re do all the icons? Are MS kernel developers moonlighting as graphics designers? If you can't redo the icons, you don't redo the icons. Win XP's design was clear enough.

    I understand its pragmatic, but it leaves the user with the feeling that the whole system is unfinished or slopily put together. They can't see the code, they can see the icons. I'd say one of the smartest decisions MS made was to prioritize the UI of windows 95 over the functionality. It screamed "modern" and "easy to use". It put the nail in the coffin of the older looking, but more stable OS/2. You can't sell stability. You can sell eye candy.

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