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I'm going to create a new icon theme for Libreoffice (a word processing application that runs on Windows, Mac and Linux), but I still need to make some decisions regarding the style of the icons. The biggest question I have right now is should the icons be monochrome or should they be colorful?

Here's an example of a monochrome Libreoffice icon theme (The default Sifr icon theme) : Libreoffice with the default Sifr Icons

The advantage of monochrome icons is that they usually have good visual uniformity and the lack of color keeps them from being distracting. Monochrome icons are also used in Google Docs and are encouraged by Google's Material design and the Windows 10 UWP design.

Here's an example of a colorful Libreoffice icon theme (The elementary icon theme): Libreoffice shown with the elementary icon theme

The advantage of colorful icons is that because they are colorful, the color gives the user an additional context clue for them to be recognizable. The icon set in Microsoft Office contain some colorful icons. Colorful icons are recommended in the HIG guidelines for Windows 7 and the HIG guidelines for OS X.

I'm leaning towards using flat colorful icons. Thoughts, suggestions, questions?

EDIT: I found this article which discusses this issue, using Libreoffice as an example.

  • Monochrome themes don't lack colour, they just use the same colour. It's a bit pedantic but it's important ito distinguish it from greyscale, as grey's been used pretty much since GUIs were invented to indicate disabled/unavailable actions. The top view looks to me like the toolbar has been disabled. – mgraham Mar 12 '16 at 13:53
  • Right, I guess in this case I meant a monochrome grayscale. If the icons were darker (black or very dark gray) would they still look disabled? – foxinsocks Mar 12 '16 at 20:03
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It's a close call, good question.

You have to choose between supporting the primary task (writing) by not distracting attention using monochrome icons and making the secondary task (format text) easier to search.

In my opinion, it's easier to visually search between colorful icons and choose your formatiing option. However, it deemphasizes the primary task of writing a little bit. I do not know for an existing research on how often users use the icons to format text as it will be useful so you can weight the differences.

If I were to choose I would go with monochrome to gain better support for the primary task by not distracting the attention. Another argument for monochrome icons is that Google advices to use them. Everybody knows that Google are usability frontiers and they make their decisions basen on tons of quantitative and qualitative data.

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    I also know that a lot of Google's design decisions are made with a bias towards mobile design, but their insight to use monochrome icons might be equally applicable to mobile and desktop, I would have to look at more of the research. – foxinsocks Mar 11 '16 at 16:08
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Who is your target audience, and how do they react?

Color helps some people, but hinders others. In my experience, men tend to register color less than women, even allowing for the 10% prevalence of some form of color blindness in men.

Left to their own devices, I find that men tend to use geometry and labels to organize work, while women are more likely to use rich color coding.

An extreme example of this disparity was a CICS screen designed by a woman for a particular man to use. She had designed the alert for his attention as red text on a green background (the green background meant one thing and the red text meant there a problem). He was red green color blind,so all he saw was a yellow bar when that was the exact thing he needed to know.

  • I don't have the resources to run tests to see reactions, but I do want to make sure the icons are usable for everyone. Does this mean that I should use icons with strong geometric shapes that are also colored, to satisfy the needs of both kinds of people? – foxinsocks Mar 12 '16 at 12:39
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    Yes, this works well. And keep in mind that reds, yellows, and greens are identical to a significant portion of the population as a whole. – pojo-guy Mar 12 '16 at 12:46
  • Just out of curiosity, which of the two screenshots are closer to what you would suggest? – foxinsocks Mar 12 '16 at 17:17
  • For myself, I prefer the monochrome theme. I don't have the resources to do the research myself, but if google and Microsoft have independently reached the same conclusion, I would expect it represents the outcome of sound research. – pojo-guy Mar 12 '16 at 19:28
  • Thanks for your feedback. However, it is also possible that Google and Microsoft did not come to this conclusion independently and are simply following trends. – foxinsocks Mar 12 '16 at 19:55

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