December 28th, 2016

Vector icons, going into 2017

About five years ago I wrote about vector format, and how it is not quite well suited to be used for application icons. Five years is a long time in our industry, and the things have changed quite dramatically since then. That post was written when pretty much all application icons looked like this:

Some of these rich visuals are still around. In fact, the last three icons are taken from the latest releases of Gemini, Kaleidoscope and Transmit desktop Mac apps. However, the tide of flat / minimalistic design that swept the mobile platforms in the last few years has not spared the desktop. Eli Schiff is probably the most vocal critic of the shift away from the richness of skeuomorphic designs, showing quite a few examples of this trend here and here.

Indeed it’s a rare thing to see multi-colored textured icons inside apps these days. On my Mac laptop the only two holdouts are Soulver and MarsEdit. The rest have moved on to much simpler monochromatic icons that are predominantly using simple shapes and a few line strokes. Here is Adobe Acrobat’s toolbar:

and Evernote:

This is Slack:

and Bear:

Line icons are dominating the UI of the web developer tools of Firefox:

They also have found their way to the web sites. Here is Feedly:

and Wikipedia’s visual editor:

You can also see this style on Airbnb listing pages (with a somewhat misbalanced amenities list):

and, to a smaller extent, on other websites such as Apple’s:

Google’s Material design places heavy emphasis on simple, clean icons:

They can be easily tinted to conform to the brand guidelines of the specific app, and lend themselves quite easily to beautiful animations. And, needless to say, the vector format is a perfect match to encode the visuals of such icons.

Trends come and go, and I wouldn’t recommend making bold predictions on how things will look like in another five years. For now, vector format has defied the predictions I’ve laid out in 2011 (even though I’ve ended that post by giving myself a way out). And, at least for now, vector format is the cool new kid.