Inconsistency is a feature, not a bug


Some of my best friends are designers. But I think we can all agree that - however well-meaning - they can be a little obsessive. Whether it is fretting over tiny details, or trying to align to a grid which doesn't exist, or spending time removing useful affordances in the name of æsthetics - they always find a way to make something prettier at the expense of usability.

Google used to have some beautiful logos for its apps. Each had a distinct shape, style, and colour. Then, someone decided that they all needed a consistent visual language. And this mess was born.

Row of Google's old icons followed by their new variants.

*sigh* I get it. I really do. Brand is a thing. Users often use visual heuristics to identify similar groups. Having each team go wild on an icon design doesn't always reflect the professionalism and consistency that you want to project. The logos aren't awful - but I find them a little boring. Not the worst sin in the world. Though that's only half the problem.

In Google's Android, they've decided that - for consistency - all icons must be firmly encased in a white circle. It makes everything look clean, consistent, friendly, and...

Google's icons in white circles. Underneath is a row of indistinguishable multi-coloured squares.

...oh.

I apologise for getting old. My visual acuity isn't what it once was. When I'm staring at my phone, with its screen caked in fingerprint grease, on a juddering bus, after a long day at work, all I want is a quick way to identify the app I want to use.

Like most people, my brain has evolved to take mental shortcuts. It looks for a distinct shape and colour to identify things. I simply can't do that with modern Android's adaptive icons. They all look like white circles with a splodge of colour in the middle.

A few years ago, I wrote about fixing Android's circular icons. Sadly, I don't have the skill to produce my own icon pack. But using the open source Iconeration I was able to manually set my icons to be beautifully inconsistent.

Homescreen filled with multicoloured icons of various shapes.

With a glance, I can immediately see which is which. Do I care that they're not all aligned perfectly? Nope!

I've got a high-resolution screen, I want high-resolution artwork. Look at that Firefox icon! It is gorgeous! It isn't a pale, flat, blob - it has texture and uniqueness.

Phones used to be wild and unique - now they're all boring black rectangles. User Interfaces used to reflect the aspirations of their designers - now they're just a bland corporate mediocrity.

I hope, one day soon, the fashion pendulum will swing back and interfaces can become interesting again. Until that day, I'll use Iconeration to make my phone easier and more delightful for me.


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6 thoughts on “Inconsistency is a feature, not a bug”

  1. Eric says:

    I agree completely! I often have apps installed on my Android phone that I only use rarely. But when I do want to use them (such as the Google Play Store or whatever it's called these days), I have to slowly search through the icons because it no longer stands out---even when I know what it should look like, too many are too similar! (And my eyes aren't that old.)

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