December 22 2006

Adobe buys Macromedia’s brand uselessness

So, Adobe decided to completely overhaul their iconic representation and branding for their product suite. This was obviously going to be necessary at some point, what with the wholly different branding style of the Macromedia range. But rather than focus on those elements of the Macromedia branding that worked well, those of the Adobe range that worked well and come up with something sympathetic and innovative, they came up with a periodic table of elements. Oh, and a new typeface (because you really need a new typeface for representing two-letter abbreviations on 16x16 icons).

Adobe's CS3 icon colour wheel

Whilst many have pointed out the ways in which these new icons fail, one comment which raised my interest was that of the spatial frequency quality of the new icons. This was something I remembered reading about earlier in the year, as it brought an element of quantifiable scoring to icon effectiveness based on the recognisability of their colour and shape. Important things, I imagine most of you would agree.

So, in the absence of any existing evidence of the new CS3 icons having been tested in this way, I decided to undertake the test myself, installing the R and rimage software so as to create the following images. In creating my icon ‘testcards’, I grabbed a selection from the colour wheel and laid them out in a grid, recreating the dropshadow effect manually (I’m not certain if this is intended to be part of the real icons or not, but it makes little difference for the purposes of this test).

Additionally, I shrank the icons to 32x32 and 16x16, which are likely to be common sizes in use on both Windows and Mac OS X systems (although possibly a little larger on some OS X users’ docks, depending on preference; I myself have my dock icons at roughly 32x32). I used the normalisation radius prescribed by Boxes and Arrows' own articles; 18.5 for 32px and 9.2 for 16px.

Adobe CS3 icons, 32x32 testcard

The selection of icons is essentially arbitrary from the colour wheel, choosing those which weren’t obscured by others.

Adobe CS3 icons, 32x32 spatial frequency analysis

At first when I saw this I assumed I’d used too high a radius setting, so I tried it again. It was correct; the icons not only lose any distinctive shape, but they are utterly indistinguishable. I suppose that wasn’t likely to be too much of a surprise though.

I ran the test again with 16x16 icons and the result was equally, if not more disconcerting.

Adobe CS3 icons, 16x16 testcard and spatial frequency analysis

To say these icons are an utter design failure is only the start of it. They’re a usability disaster. It’s almost a good thing that the design professions represent some of the brightest and most laterally-thinking computer users, because if an icon suite like this were unleashed for something ubiquitous like Word, there’d be serious problems (okay, maybe there still will be).

This isn’t of course any excuse; Adobe should be torch-bearers, leading by example given their mandate as a software company that makes stuff for creatives, rather than accepting something that meets the needs of a marketing campaign but not end users. I can only hope it’s not too late for them to change their mind, but as any long-term user of Photoshop will tell you, we’ve been on a slippery slope for quite some time.