It’s all relative, isn’t it?

There may be more to the two dirty design trends than you’ve considered.

A colleague of mine has brought his son in all week for a bit of work experience while on school holiday. He is in Year 11 and isn’t entirely sure what he wants to do with his future yet.

We’ve been giving him odd jobs to do around the office; some bug testing on the platform, trialing a side-project a few of us are working on and so on. On Tuesday I set aside time to go over some basics of icon design with him. He’d used Photoshop before, but only for basic photo manipulation and colour correction. He’d never worked with paths, shapes or layer styles. The pen tool was confusing and the pixel grid was an unheard of concept.

We sat together and browsed Dribbble looking for an icon to start with. He said he quite liked the idea of trying an iOS icon so I chose a Google + icon by Alvin Thong as it had a bunch of different techniques I wanted him to touch on. I sat with him and we worked our way through recreating the icon starting with basic measurements, shape creation and then on to things like shape operations and layer styles.

I use Photoshop daily and have been doing so for the better part of 7 years. Watching someone new to the program is fascinating; actions and processes that are second nature to me are complicated and even confusing to the uninitiated.

Some time later, we called the icon done and talked about the process behind it. This was the first bit of excitement I’d seen in him since arriving Monday morning. While the outcome wasn’t close to the reference, all things considered he did a great job. He was genuinely proud of what he had managed to make, and said he wanted to do more.

We went back to Dribbble to find something different and we came across this Safari icon by Jacob Cummings. As a polar opposite to the first, it seemed like a good choice. I set him the task of doing it start to finish without my help which he did, near perfectly. We spoke for a short time about the different aesthetic styles of the two icons he had recreated and how each have their own challenges, implications and uses. Of the two, he was far happier with the outcome of the second.

Things like flat and long shadow design have been getting a fair amount of heat lately - understandable to some degree due to the over saturation - but working with this young man made me aware of something I’d not thought about before: while he enjoyed remaking the more complex form of the G+ icon with its gradients and drop shadows, he preferred the simpler style of the Safari icon because he could do it better.

Layer styles are tricky, getting opacity levels and blend modes just right takes time and practice. For someone testing the waters of icon design, simpler is better. Simpler is more rewarding.

While some have no doubt used either - or both - of these trends as a means for attention, I think it’s safe to assume just as many are using it as an introduction to something bigger.

It can be hard to tell which is which, so let’s cut everyone some slack.

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