Last week, Microsoft announced that its overhauled its Office iconography, with new designs intended to reflect all of the things people use Office for. Why this requires a new style of icons is somewhat beyond me, but then again, I’m still happily using Office 2010. Either way, Microsoft has big plans for its iconography, and a plan to standardize its style across all of Windows.
In his Medium blog post addressing the Office icon changes, Jon Friedman, head of Microsoft Office design, writes:
We wanted a visual language that emotionally resonates across generations, works across platforms and devices, and echoes the kinetic nature of productivity today. Our design solution was to decouple the letter and the symbol in the icons, essentially creating two panels (one for the letter and one for the symbol) that we can pair or separate. This allows us to maintain familiarity while still emphasizing simplicity inside the app.
Separating these into two panels also adds depth, which sparks opportunities in 3D contexts.
I can’t speak to any 3D opportunism Microsoft may or may not have engaged in, but the new designs seem reasonable enough. The Skype icon, however, sticks out in comparison to the others, with a letter and font that’s different from the other designs. The OneDrive icon also seems rather vague, given that it lacks a letter. True, “O” was already taken for Outlook, but it’s not clear how helpful the letter is actually supposed to be in this context anyway. I’ve never thought of Office applications by single-letter shortcuts.
The use of color gradients, on the other hand, is rather clever. The Excel, Word, and PowerPoint icons all use gradients to mimic the types of layouts you commonly use within the application. The pie graph for PowerPoint is an inspired touch and even a bit of tongue-in-cheek fun. I don’t use Sharepoint, Teams, or Yammer so I can’t really speak to whether or not their designs are similarly inspired. Skype seems to have kept its original logo design.
In follow-up comments, Microsoft has made it clear that it will take this design style across the entire company. “It is a huge undertaking to build a common system and design 10 icons at the same time. Now that we have established the system we will start to scale it across all of Microsoft,” Friedman wrote in response to a user question. In another comment, he added: “This is the beginning of a cross-company effort to update all icons in the same style.”
A new version of Windows updated with the same iconography in a comprehensive, top-to-bottom refresh? That’d be interesting and provides an opportunity for the company to clean up cruft in its design.
Two points to touch on briefly. First, while I understand the impulse to gripe that Microsoft has more important fish to fry — particularly given the problems of the Windows 10 1809 Update — that’s not really a problem here. Microsoft is a huge company and the efforts of graphic designers to build new logos aren’t exactly going to conflict with the code engineers hammering on other parts of the OS. Second, while I’m tempted to snark about how design languages don’t really matter, the fact is, after Microsoft issued a major Windows 8 UI update, a number of other companies also adopted design language similar to what Redmond used for its own products. This could partly be a desire to conform with an OS’ design language, but it shows the impact these decisions have across the wider ecosystem.
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