There Is No Such Thing as Resolution Independence in Icon Design!

Nov 20 2006

Here we go again :) There’s quite a discussion among graphics designers on the Mac OS platform about vector icons at the moment. The drive for this seems to be that Leopard will allow icons as large as 512x512 pixels.

I think the major immediate need for the huge size is Front Row/iTV as the icons today are scaled up beyond their original size.


Small Canvas Needs Pixel Precision

I’ve expressed my opinion on creating a single icon that works on all resolutions in the past. I don’t believe in automatic ways to get crisp icons at lower sizes. Autohinters, non-scaled strokes would most likely make the problem much less drastic, but none of this is currently available. If you don’t have a simple cartoon style icons such as Gorilla or Gartoon, you have to bother with specific resolution tweaks. Once you see yourself adding a minor detail on a 128x128 pixel canvas, you’re not going to see any of it at below 32x32.


There is an amazing difference between looking at a 16x16 pixel canvas and something as huge as 512x512.

In the Tango project we cared about pixel precision and the low resolutions first. The largest size we actually design for, is 48x48 pixels. The artwork is vectors, it does scale up, but that doesn’t necessary mean it will look spiffy at 128x128 pixels. The images don’t have all that much detail.


Big Canvas Needs Detail

The Tango style guideline doesn’t deal with the territory of really large icons, yet. The need for high res icons will grow in time I guess. The amount of detail required will raise both the number of objects used and the effects such as blur or object masks. I agree the complexity will rise so that a simple pixbuf loader will be dramatically faster than using a runtime rasterizer.

The flexibility vectors give is definitely going to win for me for large sizes. Currently working on such complex artwork in Inkscape is quite a challenge and quite a factor for us to postpone this, until our tools are ready. It’s unlikely you will need toolbar icons with extra detail than the current scalables don’t provide. This is mostly about application icon context.


For the artist vectors are ineed sweet that they easily allow more dramatic changes to the artwork at any time during the creative process. Also it’s a lot easier to create derivate artwork. I don’t see them as the big win in that a single high-detail artork can be created for all resolutions though.