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This is why designers should not be in charge of the User Interface experience. And when I say “designer” I mean in the classic sense of “make this pretty, give it balance and sprinkle in esthetics just to be sure.”

Who knew that the class I once took in psychology would have have such a profound affect on me in the way I develop software. Just as a one hour class on typography helped me understand language and reading revealing a new a-hah about learning in general.

Back in the day of System 7/8 all the Control Panel icons got redesigned taking away their distinctive shape. Instead every icon was a square with a 1 pixel black border. The background color was light grey blue surrounding a smaller icon that told of the panels function. It made everything look very nice and neat to be sure but it was impossible to quickly find something. Suddenly the names of panels was more important then the icon. You might as well have just removed the icons entirely from a navigation point of view.

When tab switching applications in OS X the icon it’s the large specifically shaped item that I look for. Not a name and not a color. It’s like picking out a specific leaf from a pile. Or a toy from a box.

Another interesting thing is the choice of the two letters on the icon. Everyone abbreviates when writing about Photoshop at some point. Reducing it to PS (interesting that it’s never reduced to APS or AP as in Adobe Photoshop). In the case of Illustrator the letter pair is AI. But I never call it that. It’s only ever called Illustrator. I guess IL or the more better iLL wouldn’t fly. Even though thats the state of that app. Thing is that if your whole product line is reduced to two letters none of it makes sense. NONE OF IT. Why bother having a brand at all at that point?

If you’ve studied type you’ll know that words have specific shapes. Like Tetris pieces in a way. You also know that an all CAPITAL spelling of a word is harder to read then it’s lower case brother. That’s because the ascenders and descenders in the the word give it shape. Making words icons themselves.

It’s odd that the Adobe icon designer didn’t bother to look at real world examples like signs before presenting this menagerie . Road signs have distinctive shape so you can react to them far in advance without the need to actually see what is on the sign. Do you think that a signs would work at all if they were all square? No. They’d disappear from view. Granted, stop signs these days are little more then a suggestion.

But ignore all the above.

The kids at Adobe know these things. They are some of the smartest smarties I’ve ever been around. The reason they are making these boring icons is simple. Cost cutting. To make the products from Macromedia integrate in with Adobe’s the “family look” has to get made. At a cost of 40 grand per product that’s 1.6 million dollars given the 42 main products. Instead they got the entire redesign for the cost of the designer’s salary.

Cheap at double the price.