One of the main goals of all the products we create at JetBrains is to increase our productivity as developers. And we’re ready to go the extra mile to achieve this.
This year IntelliJ IDEA turned 18 years old. Through all these years, the IDE has received lots of nice features, and dedicated icons were added for many of them. As a result, there are colorful icons all over the interface.
Main toolbar in IntelliJ IDEA 2017.3. Almost all icons have at least two colors and complex shape.
Such abundance of color and detail distracts from the main purpose of the IDE – working with the code efficiently. A clearer UI would help maintain focus and productivity.
Two years ago we updated the Project tree icons. We made them flat and systematized the colors.
Project tree icons in 2016.2 vs. 2016.3
The next step is then to improve the toolbars. There have been no significant changes in the toolbar’s structure since the earliest versions. If you compare the main toolbar in the different versions, they are pretty similar:
Main toolbar in different IntelliJ IDEA versions
Is it still necessary to have so many icons on the toolbars? Do users click all these icons? To answer these questions, we’ve collected usage statistics and used it to analyze the toolbars.
The icons used by less than 5% of all users have been removed. These icons will not distract the other 95% of users. With fewer icons on the toolbar, you can find the one you need faster.
In addition to removing the rarely used icons, we have also redesigned the icons. The toolbar icons had not been updated since 2012 (for 6 years!) and looked rather inconsistent and outdated.
There are about 4,000 unique icons in IntelliJ-based products. A structured and clear guideline for icons is, therefore, a prerequisite for a redesign. Here are the main points from our guide.
1. Style and forms
The common style unites several icons into a set. The unified style makes the icons cohesive and recognizable.
The majority of IntelliJ Platform’s icons are rather small — 16px x 16px. So we decided to use a flat geometric icon style with straight corners and edges. Flat icons work better and remain legible even at small sizes.
At the same time, we wanted the icons to be simple. The clean and simple icons ensure readability and reduce visual clutter.
The new icon shapes were designed using a grid and keyline shapes. The grid and basic shapes help make the icons’ visual proportions and placement consistent.
As the main drawing line, we use a 2px stroke. Using the same line weights across icons helps the icons be consistent.
One of the subtasks was to unify a huge variety of arrows.
In the old set of icons, some icons used several versions of the same metaphor, while others had specific metaphors that could be replaced with a more generic one. We worked on unifying the metaphors and merging duplicates.
Many icons from the old set did not follow any guidelines on colors. The color was often just used for decoration.
We’ve rethought how we use color, and systematized the color palette. Now color is always used to convey specific information. For instance, green is for start actions, and red is for stopping or destructive actions.
Tool window buttons
The biggest controversy was caused by icons representing the tool window buttons. We’ve made all tool window icons grey.
Our reasoning was as follows:
- All primary tool windows are more or less equivalent in terms of usage, so none of them should stand out.
- Using tool window buttons is more about muscle memory: you are likely to remember the button position and just move your mouse to that place.
- Unlike toolbar icons, tool window buttons have labels, which we assume help identify them.
We’ve received a lot of feedback about the new tool window icons. Lots of people inside JetBrains and external EAP users like their new simplified forms. However, some users have complained about the lack of color (IDEA-192025).
Color previously helped them find icons faster, while the new versions take them more time to read labels. The second problem is that tool windows from some 3rd-party plugins still have colored icons, and they are too bright in comparison to new gray icons.
Thank you all for the feedback! We are still thinking about what version of icons should be used. If the new icons are not as useful for you, please use the “ToolWindow Colorful Icons” plugin that adds color to the tool window button icons.
New tool window buttons with “ToolWindow Colorful Icons” plugin
We look forward to continuing the dialog and collecting more feedback. We are going to come up with future plans based on your feedback.
We have updated many of the icons in the most common toolbars and intend to continue this work.
Organizing the color palette and paying attention to icon shapes helped us make the UI visually simpler. A clear interface helps minimize distraction from the source code, thereby improving your focus and performance.
Please try the preview of IntelliJ IDEA 2018.2 or other IntelliJ-based IDEs and share your feedback with us!