I've seen an increase of 3D icons in the recent past. I am not convinced they are better. Instead they may actually be worse because space is taken up by the projection.

Is there any evidence as to which ones are better?

A related article is by Jakob Nielsen arguing that 2D is better.

4 Answers 4


Your brain works better with canonical perspective. There was an experiment that consisted on asking people to draw a cup of coffee. Most people will draw it from a perspective as if you are slightly above the cup looking down, and offset a little to the right or left. You wouldn't draw the cup from the top - even thought that is the most frequent use.

(Palmer, S. E., Rosch, E., and Chase, P. (1981). “Canonical Perspective and the Perception of Objects.” In Long, J., and Baddeley, A. (Eds.), Attention and performance IX, Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.)

It doesn't matter so much if you do full abstraction of an object of it's a 3D model. what is important is:

  • Use canonical perspective to assure the person recognizes the object quicker
  • Use the minimum elements that will allow the user to recognize the object - Abstract the object to it's minimal form
  • Take into consideration the size it's going to be and if under any circumstance it can be reduced any more, the more reduced, the less details it must have
  • Good contrast
  • 1
    But you need to have all the details you need to display it at the largest size the icon will be displayed. A tiny icon of a globe might not need all the details that a large one does, but the larger version definately needs to have recognizable landmasses/oceans, even if they can't be distinguished at the smallest size. Commented Apr 28, 2013 at 21:44

One isn't better than the other. They are simply different.

There is a lot of evidence that your eye will pick out objects styled to look like they are 3D faster than perfectly flat objects. In addition seeing an object that looks sort of 3D will give it some level of affordance that wouldn't be there otherwise. The problems that the Windows Metro design has had with affordance illustrates this.

The problem with 3D icons is that they present higher cognitive load. iOS tends to focus on 3D icons, while Android usually has more flat icons. Neither one is clearly better than the other, but both of them work. In these situations it is usually better to go with the design feel of the system that you are using.

With reference to Nielsen's article, he presents a quite frankly silly argument where his entire justification is based on the fact that we have stereoscopic vision while a screen has no real depth to it. He conveniently leaves out that our stereoscopic vision is not sensitive enough to pick out a small change in depth. We use other visual cues and our experience to infer depth. In fact even people that are stereoscopically blind have no problem picking up simulated depth.

As an experiment, try closing one eye. You are now stereoscopically blind. Are you still able to see what is 3D and what is 2D?

  • -1 for calling nielsen silly Commented Apr 14, 2014 at 21:12
  • 1
    Nobody is calling Nielsen silly. His argument is silly. Commented Apr 15, 2014 at 9:56

This is really a problem of aesthetics, Nielsen's article is not relevant in the matter.

1) 3D icons are not 3D but fake 3D.

Most icons in a desktop are fake 3D nowadays. It starts to be a problem when 3D is not fake anymore, that can be confusing when interacting with it. (Little rambling : Apple's application dock is very close to real 3D because it can move a lot when your play with it but it does work when you learned the trick.)

enter image description here

2) You do not interact with the representation in the icon but with the icon as an object.

The fact that the illustration is 3D or 2D is not going to be as important as the treatment of the icon : location, size, shadows, with or without text etc.

You do not want your illustration to be confusing : let say your icon looks like folder, the user is going to expect a folder to open not an application. And to be coherent you want all your icones to follow the same pattern (aesthetics, size etc.). But at the end the illustration does not even have to make sense by itself. Most desktop icons are just logotypes.

wtf ?

3) It all depends on what you want to do with your icon

It is an icon for an action within an application ? to launch an application ? To illustrate a website ? To give some information ?

icon that we forgot it was an icon

I would say: fake 3D, awesome flat design... It is all about aesthtics. It is like the size of ties, it comes and goes...

Focus on the interaction with the icon and avoid make stupid choices with the representation but be free to choose your own style. When you have choice.

But most of the time try to avoid the icon and turn to good old text.

  • 3D icons are not confusing as long as they (1) still read well at small sizes, (2) can be recognized quickly, (3) don't rely on their three-dimensionality to convey what they are. All the icons on the dock in your screenshot would still be recognizable even if completely stripped of their 3D shading. If you can obliterate the shading with a posterize filter and still easily understand what it is, then the 3D is most likely not detracting from the design.
    – Mentalist
    Commented Mar 26, 2019 at 0:47

The point is not "flat", "3d" or any other design. The point is "does the icon behave like an icon?" An icon is meant to represent some thing with out the need for words. E.G. Which icon represents "Photo's" better the one on iOS 6 or on iOS 7 or some other icon? Which icon represents "Settings" better?

Yes I know they have words under them but the point is an icon should not need words. Being dyslexic I understand this and so should a good designer.

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