Circular arguments

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Wikipedia has this to say about icons:

There are icons all over OS X, of course—from the application icons to the symbols in dialog boxes to the small activity images (sent, forwarded, etc.) next to your messages in Mail. The most notable icons are the application icons, and not only because they can take up to 128-by-128 pixels of your screen. An icon is the public face of an application, the last thing the user sees before running the actual program. As such, the icon has an important role to play—ideally it would convey some sense of what the program is all about. It must be visually distinctive, professional in appearance, and somehow convey the purely subjective sense that the program behind the icon is a well-crafted piece of software. That’s a lot to ask out of a 128-by-128 square of pixels. Despite the difficulties, OS X application icons are, for the most part, quite impressive. For the most part…

In my job, I download and test a lot of programs—my machine presently has something in excess of 750 installed applications. Most of these are freeware, shareware, or demo versions of commercial programs. I’ll download them, test them out, then generally forget about them. Back in the day, I had gobs of drive space, and it was easier to have something at hand than to re-download it if I wanted to check it out again. That was then. This is now, and I find my drive space vanishing at a prodigious rate—2GB alone this week on something Apple calls “movie downloads.” But I digress.

In the process of cleaning out some of the stuff in my various application folders, I noticed something of a pattern in the area of application icon design. Intrigued, I decided that I’d add each application whose icon fit the pattern to my dock, just to get a visual overview of what I had been seeing. After a few minutes, I had 75 of these related icons in my dock. Of course, that meant that my dock was really, really wide—careful with that link, as it’s to an image of my dock that’s 1,898 pixels wide! Here’s another view of my dock, this time sliced up into rows to make it more presentable:

Hopefully the pattern I was seeing is now plainly apparent: circular application icons. If I found 75 of them in relatively short order, there are probably hundreds if not thousands of such icons out there. In and of itself, I have no issues with round icons. And please note, the following is in no way a slam against any of these programs, or really even their icons. Rather, it’s more about the pervasiveness of round icons in general. In fact, I find it more interesting than troubling, and I’m curious as to why there are so many. Clearly OS X doesn’t care what shape an icon is in—it will properly display any shape you wish, as you can see by looking at the icon for, say, GarageBand.

Where this lovefest of round icons becomes problematic can be easily seen in the above screenshot—add a few round-icon applications to your dock, and it becomes very difficult to tell them apart with just a quick glance. This is especially troublesome in the realm of web browsers. Because the first W in WWW stands for World, it seems there’s a feeling that a browser’s icon should be circular, and potentially include some sort of image of earth on the circular form:

Of the 14 browsers on my machine, 12 use a circular icon and seven (depending on your interpretation of some of the images) have a globe of sorts. Only Mozilla and iCab are completely non-circular, while Opera gains a few points for being circular but not globe-like. But when I put the rest of these in my dock, it looks like a collection of close relatives, making it quite hard to find one with a quick glance. Even Firefox, with the fox wrapping around the world, becomes somewhat same-looking when shrunk down to typical Dock size. So that’s actually why I created this folder of aliases, which I pop up as a menu under the mouse using a Butler command key sequence—in the pop-up menu. I can then select a browser by name without relying on interpreting its icon in the dock.

But at least browsers have something of an excuse for using a round object, with the tie-in to that first W of WWW. What about all the other applications? Why, for instance, did Kodak feel it necessary to place their Kodak logo (1971-2006, RIP) within a shiny gold gumpdrop? And Devonthink did the same, sticking a human brain inside a shiny blue gumdrop. Is there some application out there for program authors that takes an image and plunks it down inside a gumdrop? Why this preponderance of round-restricted icons when OS X will allow any shape and design? Is it easier for the authors to do this than to design an icon that stands alone without the circle? Probably, and I know that good icon design can be both costly and time consuming. The point of this article really isn’t to point fingers and offer compelling solutions; it was inspired simply by the sheer number of such icons I found while clearing out my collection of applications. But I’d be interested in your thoughts on the matter—why so many round blobs?

As an aside, if you’re curious as to exactly what programs are represented by all those icons, then just watch this little movie clip. The quality is intentionally fairly low, to keep the file size reasonable, but everything is readable. Note that many of these programs are old—some may no longer be available, and others may have newer (non-round, perhaps?) icons. Many of these were found in the backwoods of my hard drive, and haven’t been run for years, so proceed at your own risk if you choose to find and download anything you see in the list.

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