Monday, April 14, 2008

Mac OS X Leopard: Designer’s Guide to Icons

In 2000 Apple released the visual theme Aqua, a stunning leap forward in graphical user interface design. At the same time Apple published the Human Interface Guidelines (HIG), a tool for developers and designers that gives a detailed breakdown of the design philosophy behind Aqua. Apple recently updated their Human Interface Guidelines (HIG) to include the way the visual theme Aqua has evolved in Apple’s latest operating system, OS X 10.5 Leopard. This is the first update since 2006.

Let’s take a look at how this affects icon designers.

Aqua: Strive For Simplicity

“Gorgeous, artistic icons are an important part of the Mac OS user experience. Users expect beautiful icons that tell an application’s story in a clear and memorable way.”

To get really beautiful icons, Apple recommends that you let a professional designer create your icons. Despite all the eye candy and realism that is possible to apply to icons, less is more. Strive for a simple solution using one easily recognisable object. The basic shape or silhouette of your icon can help users to quickly identify it. If you aim for an international market, your symbols need to also be internationally recognizable providing Worldwide Compatibility.

To increase usability and avoid confusing users as to what is part of the Aqua interface and what belongs to an application looking great in the Aqua interface, avoid using Aqua interface elements in your icons, don’t use replicas of Apple hardware products and don’t reuse Mac OS×system icons in your icons. It can be confusing to users to see the same symbol used to mean slightly different things in multiple locations.

Light Source and Perspective in Aqua

Address Book

Use a single light source with the light coming from above and slightly in front of the icon. This icon for Apple’s Address Book is a good example of the lighting in Mac OS X, Aqua.

Apple writes that “perspective and shadows are the most important components of making good icons“. The perspective for icons and the concept of icon genres and families remain the same in Leopard’s graphical user interface as in previous versions of Aqua.

Realism in Aqua


Aqua icons, such as this icon for Apple’s Pages, display a high level of realism and often show off glassy effects and transparency effects. This works best with concepts that can be described with a physical object. Icons that convey abstract concepts such as “music”, “checkout” or “download” are tricky to make photorealistic representations of.

For example, what would be a good way to symbolize the idea of music? A note? A photorealistic image of notes on paper? An instrument? Which instrument? And will using a harp or a sheet of classical music be too specific for anyone to feel that rap music or jazz could be represented by this imagery?

Not to mention how to make photorealistic representations of concepts like “Compute Value Added Tax” or “Restore Latest Backup”.

QuickTime Player

This application icon for Apple’s QuickTime Player has evolved over the years, with different variations whilst keeping its basic shape. It’s an example of an icon that Apple have chosen to make a symbolic icon for, rather than taking a photorealistic approach.

It is interesting to see how the icons in the iPhone and iPod interface have made a break from the photo-realism of Aqua and are designed more as symbols, which was the original idea behind the computer icon.

A handheld device is used in less than optimal conditions. There can be glaring light or low light, distractions, noise and so on. Using a more bold and simple visual theme makes a lot of sense for usability.

The icons in the iPhone and iPod interface display glossy effects and squares with rounded corners such as is commonly seen in the current “Web 2.0″ design.

The Dock in Leopard


If you think that users will want to display your icon in the Dock (and which developer doesn’t dream of that!), I suggest you give it a bare minimum of extra effects, as the Dock itself automatically adds several special effects including shadows as well as a reflection of the icon.

As far as I can tell there is no specific information on exactly what effects the Dock adds to icons in the latest version of Apple’s Human Interface Guidelines. I suggest simply adding a slight drop shadow of pure black to make the icon look at home in Aqua, both in the Dock and in other environments of the interface.

Leopard’s File Browser Cover Flow

You also need to be aware of how the Cover Flow view in Finder displays your application icon. In Cover Flow, icons are displayed against a black background, set on a highly reflective surface. Because of this, you may need to adjust the design of your icon.

If your icon includes a drop shadow, make sure the shadow is fully black. If your icon is very dark or has black edges, you can add a slight inner glow to make the icon stand out against the black background. This Spaces icon shown below, has a slight inner glow that makes it look at home in the Cover Flow environment.



Avoid giving important parts of your icon high alpha levels (that is, a lot of transparency), especially in the lower half of the icon. As areas with too much alpha can get clipped by Cover Flow. This icon for Apple’s Mail has a cancellation mark with high alpha levels and as we can see Cover Flow has clipped part of the postmark as shown below.


Personally, I think that icons set on an angle look awkward in Cover Flow, since Cover Flow tilts the icons it gets to be a bit too much. A straight-on view, such as the perspective for the Spaces icon is best for icons when displayed in Cover Flow.

Icon Sizes in Leopard

OS X 10.5 Leopard introduces a new larger size for icons, 512×512 pixels. A professionally created icon for Leopard should include the following sizes:

  • 512×512 pixel image (for Finder icons in Mac OS X v10.5 and later)
  • 128×128 pixel image (for Finder icons in all versions of Mac OS X)
  • 32×32 pixel image (hint for Finder icons)
  • 16×16 pixel image (hint for Finder icons)
  • A mask that defines the image’s edges so that the operating system can determine which regions are clickable

Icons that display in the Finder are viewed at different sizes: they can be magnified in the Dock, they can be previewed at full size, and users can specify a preferred size. For the best-looking icons at all sizes, you should provide custom images (“hints”) at 32×32 pixels and 16×16 pixels. Although the Dock doesn’t use hints (it uses a sophisticated algorithm on the 128×128 pixel version), hints are important for preserving crucial details in Finder icons.

Always start with the largest icon and downscale that to the smaller sizes. The largest version of your icon should have the richest texture, more details and greater realism. The smaller sizes will in some cases need some retouching to have the same high quality as the original large sized design.


This mockup of the Front Row application icon illustrates that simply enlarging a small icon will not provide the sharpness and detail required in the large version of the icon.

Scaling Your Art Work So That The Smaller Versions Become Crisp and Clear


Setting up a grid and “using snap to grid” will help you keep each of the smaller icon versions crisp and reduce the amount of retouching and sharpening you need to do when you resize the art work.

Apple suggests that you set up the canvas for your master file to 1024×1024 pixels. In your image-editing application, set up an 8-pixel grid as you create the master file. This means that each block in the grid measures 8×8 pixels and represents one pixel in the 128×128 pixel icon.

Turn on “snap to grid” to reduce the half pixels and blurry details that can result when you scale it down. Although using an 8-pixel grid works well when you create 512×512 pixel icons, you may prefer the increased precision you get when you use a 2-pixel grid to create the master image.

If you aren’t satisfied with the results when you scale down your art work to the 32×32 pixel and 16 ×16 pixel sizes, you can redraw the image at these sizes instead. However, setting up the proper grid can still help reduce extra work if you decide to redraw the smaller versions. For example, using a 32-pixel grid with a 1024×1024 pixel master file works well for creating the 32×32 pixel size, and a 64-pixel grid works well for creating the 16×16 pixel size.

In general I think keeping the icons as simple as possible is a good idea, as both the Dock and the Cover Flow in Aqua Leopard add a lot of effects.


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Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Adobe Photoshop Tutorials - Rainbows, Glows and Light Effects

Lighting effects in Adobe Photoshop are used to add flare and polish to images. They communicate feelings of creativity, technology, magic, and fantasy. Creating beams, glows, motion trails, rainbows, or an assortment of other lighting effects, give your images ambiance and depth.

Now it’s time for a sparkling dose of related Photoshop learning material. This article provides a resource of Adobe Photoshop Light Effects tutorials. These tutorials offer an assortment of techniques for making your work creatively glow.

Please consider them as an extension of our ultimate Adobe Photoshop series:

Photoshop Light Effects Tutorials

  • Lines Tutorial
    A super simple tutorial that makes rainbow colored lines. It shows you how to give them an appearance of brightness and depth.

    Lines Tutorial

  • Expressive lighting effects
    This tutorial combines both vector and raster based techniques to achieve a glowing floral design. The glows are applied in Photoshop.

    Expressive lighting effects

  • Vector Polishing Techniques
    This tutorial covers numerous ways to transform your vector illustrations into masterpieces by using Photoshop lighting techniques, glows, and filters.

    Vector Polishing Techniques

  • How to Make the “Flare” Effect As Seen On
    In this tutorial, the Lens Flare filter is used on the background. Then the lighting is created with brushes and different blending modes.

    How to Make the Flare Effect As Seen On

  • Sparkling Hot Girl in Photoshop
    Utilize an assortment of techniques to achieve a sparkling design. Masks, blurs, brushes, layers styles and other effects are used in this tutorial.

    Sparkling Hot Girl in Photoshop

  • Amazing Photoshop light effect in 10 Steps
    “If you know a bit of Layer Styles and the Brush engine in Photoshop you will be able to create amazing effects. It will depend exclusively on your imagination and playing with the tool. Sometimes just changing some settings and you get a totally different effect.” This tutorial applies lighting effects to a coffee cup icon.

    Amazing Photoshop light effect

  • Creating A Fantastic Fantasy Night Sky In Photoshop
    Create cartoon style clouds with rainbows, stars, and glowing effects. Based on a Nik Ainley design.

    Creating A Fantastic Fantasy Night Sky In Photoshop

  • Neon lights with Photoshop
    Tutorial on how to make glowing lights effects out of vector shapes and brushes.

    Neon lights with Photoshop

  • Electrifying Energy Beams
    In this tutorial you start with the pen tool by drawing a line. Then you transform that line into an energy beam with layer effects. This makes it glow white and purple around a microphone.

    Electrifying Energy Beams

  • Add Another Dimension
    Use glows and blending modes to “add another dimension” to your Photoshop artwork

    Add Another Dimension

  • Magic lighting effect in Photoshop
    Learn to magically make text wave and glow out of a magician’s hat.

    Magic lighting effect

  • Extreme sports branding
    This tutorial first covers creating a logo then it gets into the main snowboard illustration. Vector shapes are applied with layer effects and brushes to make the illustration stand out. This is part one in a series.

    Extreme sports branding

  • How to Create Intense Light Streaks in Photoshop
    This tutorial shows you how to create light streaks that appear to flow around an object.

    How to Create Intense Light Streaks in Photoshop

  • Chroma Wallpapers
    This tutorial explains how to create an energetic design with lines. Utilize blurs, warps, and other effects. Add glowing and vibrating colors to give this image a dynamic feeling.

    Chroma Wallpapers

  • Advanced Glow Effects
    This tutorial teaches how to create glow effects using layer styles, the pen tool, and some color blending effects.

    Advanced Glow Effects

  • Lighting Effects - Beam Wave
    Learn to transform a one pixel lines into a glowing beam. Then add radial balls of light to emulate a pulse explosion.

    Lighting Effects - Beam Wave

  • Add A Sparkle Trail To A Photo
    Learn how to add a sparkling trail of stars to your photos using brushes, layer styles, and effects.

    Add A Sparkle Trail To A Photo

  • Creating light motion trails & glowing sparks
    This tutorial covers creating light motion trails by using the pen tool with layer styles. It also covers creating sparkling stars in Illustrator and then importing them into the Photoshop design.

    Creating light motion trails & glowing sparks

  • Blue Glow Layout
    This tutorial reviews the process for creating a simple layout in Photoshop, while revealing techniques for creating an abstract glowing centerpiece design.

    Blue Glow Layout

  • Fantasy Art Photoshop tutorial
    Learn to create a fantasy image with glowing halos of lights and stars. Notice how you can apply glow directly to a cropped image. The tutorial creates the halos with the Elliptical Marquee tool. It applies a stroke and then a glow to the selection, on its own layer.

    Fantasy Art Photoshop tutorial

  • Photoshop: Light Beam
    This tutorial reviews the basic process of creating a light beam in Photoshop; however, it does refer to other tutorials for some effects. The techniques in this tutorial involve using different brushes to paint the light, and then they are smeared with the Smudge Tool. There are a few filters used as well.

    Photoshop: Light Beam

  • Even fairies have to rest - glow and lightning tutorial
    First, the photograph is treated to make it a little darker so that the points of light in the design will stand out. Both a linear wrapping beam and points of radiating light are covered in this tutorial.

    Even fairies have to rest - glow and lightning tutorial

  • Beautiful lighting FX effect in Photoshop
    This tutorial will show you how to make a beautiful lighting effect with the scatter brush. This tutorial covers the basics.

    Beautiful lighting FX effect in Photoshop

  • High-Tech Swirling Aurora
    This tutorial covers how to apply the Wind Filter to a waving light beam to create an aurora effect.

    High-Tech Swirling Aurora

  • Slow shutter text effect - Photoshop
    Layers of blurred elements are used in this tutorial. This blurring technique is worked into glowing linear text and circle shapes.

    Slow shutter text effect - Photoshop

  • Seriously Cool Photoshop Explosion Effect
    Use layer masks and light effects to creatively break apart an image. Points of bright lights, swirly brushes, and warped lines help bring this design together.

    Seriously Cool Photoshop Explosion Effect

Which techniques can be applied?

At the compositional level, these effects are often applied through shapes. So, you might start with the pen tool by drawing a curvy line. Or, grab a brush and draw some scattered stars. Or, open up Illustrator first to compose design elements that you then pull back into Photoshop. The tutorial Expressive lighting effects demonstrates how to use interesting design shapes first and then apply glowing effects to them.

Once you know how you’d like to use shapes, you can apply effects to them. Layer styles and Blending Modes are common effects used to create this look. With Layer Styles, you might apply Glow. Or, with Blending Modes, you might set the layer to Lighten, Overlay, or Color Dodge – get the element you’re working with to sparkle and shine.

Chroma Wallpapers
In the tutorial Chroma Wallpapers, lines are bent with the Warp Transform tool before being given a glow treatment.

There are more techniques often used; such as different types of blurs and gradients. You could play with Photoshop’s built in lighting effects, like Lens Flare, as well. Or get creative. Mix in rainbows. Paint glowing bursts of light. Manipulate the lines and shapes your working with.

In the tutorial Chroma Wallpapers lines are bent with the Warp Transform tool before being given a glow treatment. This puts a new spin on the use of glowing light techniques.

Where can I get some inspiration?

Consider raising it to the next level, after you’ve mastered the basics of lighting and glow techniques. To raise the quality of your glowing work you’ll need inspiration and imagination.

Look at artists, such as Chuck Anderson, that have mastered these techniques. Try to figure out what they have done – beyond the basics.

Chuck Anderson
Chuck Anderson’s work impresses with the beauty of its lightning effects.

Also, look at photographic effects; for philwebsupport , look at how light appears to blur and travel in long exposure photography. See the Flickr Group Light Stream for samples of this kind of photography.

Keep your eyes and mind open. You’ll start to see these effects in the real world. Or look to fantasy art; the sparkling feel of these effects can be used to supersede reality, magically transforming your designs.

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