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The NeXT Generation of Application Icons

From placeholder to work of art.

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Remember when you got the latest edition of the MSDN and you checked out all the support samples? And they had icons drawn with MS Paint's pencil tool that had 'My Icon' scrawled in them?

Application icons on Windows have always been more placeholders than works of art. On the Linux platforms one sees much of the same thing.

But things aren't like that on other platforms. Such as Apple's Mac OS X.

48x48 Pantone Near Photographic Quality

When Susan Kare was still struggling along on Windows 3.0 with a 16-colour palette to make 32x32 icons NeXT Computer were producing 48x48 icons with 4096 colours - 'near photographic quality'. The brilliance of the artwork by Keith Ohlfs was what first caught people's eye with that platform.

Keith was a part-time graphics artist who'd done a hardcopy spread for Adobe. Susan Kare - who by then had migrated from Apple to NeXT - saw the Adobe advertisements and hired Ohlfs for the NeXT project.

A Keith Ohlfs desktop for NeXTSTEP. This artwork dates back to the end of the 1980s - 20 years ago.

From 48 to 128 to 512

Apple went NeXT one better with the 1997 merger: now icons would be 128x128 and would be rendered in 24-bit colour (16777216 variations). Apple's version of the NeXTSTEP and OPENSTEP 'docks' would be able to magnify these icons to nearly full size.

Suddenly icons were no longer placeholders - they became works of art.

And with the move in October 2007 to version 10.5 'Leopard' Apple moved to 512x512 icons for display in their recently acquired Cover Flow technology.

The icon format is still not vector-based, meaning a 512x512 icon weighs in at about 500 KB. For most purposes icons in this format are overkill but the images can of course be designed at that resolution to begin with.


Apple's 'style' evolved over the years towards a greater degree of realism than found on other platforms. But Rixstep's partner Graphic Tribe (グラフィックトライブ) took things one step further - full realism accomplished with 2D/3D rendering tools.

The idea was to bridge the modern look with the realism of the Keith Ohlfs icons from a generation before to create a futuristic almost 'sci-fi' new icon style.

Some of these icons took over 24 hours to render once the design had been decided on. Inlays and small objects were first carefully rendered at large scale and then compressed into place in the icon itself. Graphic Tribe went so far as to give some applications alternating icons according to their programmatic states.

Contact Sheets

Graphic Tribe work from 'contact sheets' - series of (matrices of) proposed icon renderings optimised for speed rather than resolution quality. It is from these sheets a final icon is chosen. This selection process can go on for months.

One of the Graphic Tribe contact sheets for the Rixstep application Xscan with 3 handle colours, four inlays, and 5 backgrounds.


'The hack's in the details', says Graphic Tribe artist Dali Rău. The 666x307 inlay for the Xfile and Xfind icons can be seen under the upper arc of the magnifying glass in both.

The 666x307 inlay for the Xfile and Xfind icons. It's seen in the upper arc of the magnifying glass in the final images.

The Real Copy

Once one or more designs are chosen the rendering quality is set to high and with four computers hooked together in a grid the creation process begins. It can take the four computers over 24 hours to complete a single icon.

One of the Graphic Tribe designs for Xfile during final rendering. The inlay under the magnifying glass is larger than early laptop screens in original format. This icon at 512x512 took over 24 hours to render with four computers working in tandem on the image.

Five Months

From start to finish the first three icons - for Xfile, Xfind, and Xscan - took from December 2007 to April 2008. Several further icons followed in the months after at a relatively swift pace.

Three of the early designs for Xfile, Xfind, and Xscan from December 2007.

Some of the early designs of the Outbox icon.

Dali Rău of Graphic Tribe at work on one of the renderings of Xfile. The alternate CLIX 'MACLIX' icon can be seen in the dock.

See Also
Rixstep Red Hat Diaries: MACLIX
Rixstep Red Hat Diaries: Artwork by Dali
Rixstep Red Hat Diaries: Artwork by Dali II

All artwork copyright © Graphic Tribe and Rixstep. All rights reserved.

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