When you click on that red and white envelope icon to access your email, you don’t think “this is an envelope, which means mail.” Instead, your brain jumps immediately to “Gmail.” Good icons like Gmail’s are almost invisible in how they transmit their meaning to the user. We’ve probably learned thousands of these image associations in the era of modern computing, and it’s easy to forget that these tiny symbols have a long and convoluted history. A project from Futuramo, an icon design start up, takes us through the history of computer icons, from the very first rough pixels on an Apple II to the impressively detailed images of Windows Vista.
Futuramo’s History of Icons tour provokes nostalgia and contains some good historical screen shots, but we wish it had more detail on the context of the images. What it does accomplish is tracking the rise of realism in icon design, what they call “Icon Rococo Style,” which reached its peak in the late 2000s with Windows Vista. These icons, such as a realistic globe and transparent recycling bin, were so detailed that they still look good blown up to ten times their usual size. Futuramo then traces the recent backlash to this two decade trend, which has seen flattened, minimal interfaces come back into style.
The guide provides a few other compelling tidbits of history–like how designer Susan Kare, who famously designed the icons on the original Macintosh, also worked on the icons for Windows 3.0 in 1990. Futuramo is still soliciting images of old screens, so if you’ve got something buried on a floppy disc (which, if you haven’t noticed, is still the symbol we use for “save”), now’s the time to dig it up.