More Informative Icons


If the user activated the MacJournal option to encrypt entries when the application wasn’t open, a small padlock would be displayed to communicate this.

MacJournal icon with an overlaid lock

The padlock icon is property of the OmniGroup.


The lenses would be capped if 1001 could not connect to Flickr.

1001 icon with and without lens caps

Delicious Library

The scanner’s beam would only be active when a scanner was in use by the application.

Delicious Library icon with the scanner beam highlighted


The globe in the iTerm icon would only be displayed when a remote connection (FTP, SSH, etc.) was active and frontmost.

iTerm icon with the globe highlighted

iChat AV

I thought of this before I saw the new iChat AV icon, so I was rather pleased to see that the upcoming version drops the AIM person, leaving more space for the actual balloon. I’m lousy in Photoshop, so I put together these graphics rather than try to slice and dice the actual (new) iChat icon.

  1. Text only

    Empty iChat-like speech bubble icon

  2. Text and audio only

    iChat-like speech bubble icon with a telephone icon inside

  3. Text, audio, and video

    iChat-like speech bubble icon with a video camera icon inside

The icon would dynamically update based on hardware availability. For example, if the user unplugged their iSight, but there was an internal microphone available, the icon would change from the video camera to the phone. Likewise, if another application was using the iSight (like Delicious Library for scanning barcodes), the icon would change to a phone since the video hardware was unavailable to iChat.


  1. The normal icon:

    The basic iPhoto icon

    This would be displayed until the user began an import…

  2. The default palm tree photo would be dynamically replaced by the pictures being imported. An overlaid badge would count the photos as they are imported.

    iPhoto's icon updating as photos are imported

  3. Once the import completed, the default icon would again be displayed. The counter badge would fade after a few seconds of iPhoto being the frontmost application.

    iPhoto's default icon indicating import completion

The key to making any of these work without being overly distracting would be keeping the animation subtle.

Some of these ideas would barely be visible in the Dock when sized relatively small, but I’m thinking about the future, when very high-resolution displays will be the norm. Try maximizing the Dock on a 30″ Cinema Display — it still isn’t all that big relative to the available screen space.

Published by

Daniel J. Wilson

I am a designer, drummer, and photographer in Brooklyn, NY.

4 thoughts on “More Informative Icons”

  1. Daniel, there’s some great examples there — I completely agree that the icons, particularly prominent as they are, via the Dock, are under-utilised as a passive feedback mechanism.

  2. Thanks, Marc! As many problems as the Dock has (particularly in its default configuration), it can communicate a lot of information. The size of the canvas will only increase as time goes on. I wonder if 10.4 will support 256×256 icons in the Dock… I am fairly sure they are supported in the Finder.

  3. Great article. We’ve (me and a couple of other designers) come to the idea of “live icons” in about the same time. There’ve been attempts to build them into existing software products I worked on but they all failed (both attempts and the application) 🙁

    The ideas were far beyond badges. In fact I thought of icons as mini-widgets displaying a lot of info about application through their look. I haven’t thought of visual noise then, but even now I’m sure application developers could do a lot more to make use of icons displaying relevant data…

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