Are Windows Vista icons facing the wrong way?

I know what you’re thinking, “has it really come down to this”.

No doubts you’ve all seen the “Computer” icon in Windows Vista. Some of you might have even clicked on it and few of you probably have a shortcut on your desktop. But has it ever occurred to you it’s facing the wrong direction – away from you? At least one guy did, and this is just one of the minor details under scrutiny at the Windows UX Taskforce that is particularly fascinating, to me at least.

The problem is, by default, Windows displays icons from left to right. Assuming the user sits in the middle of the monitor, the icons should in fact face right towards you and not the edge of the monitor. The only icon in Vista off the top of my head which does this correctly are the “folders” icon which open up towards the right. This actually conflicts with the official user experience guidelines suggesting the perspective of icons face left.

If this isn’t weird enough, the Windows XP’s icons and even conceptual Vista icons designed by Iconfactory faced the right (pun) way. For some unknown reason, Microsoft designers decided to flip them. FYI: Mac OSX icons face directly at you – probably the best solution.

Of course I understand that this is not a make-or-break issue and probably won’t be addressed in Windows 7 – just flipping the icons won’t actually work since the lighting and symbols on the icons will be different – but this raises an interesting discussion around the “psychology” of design. Could this explain why so many people are turned off by Vista? On the same note, facing left also implies “looking back” as opposed to right – “looking forward”. You get the drift.

In spite of the serious discussion at hand, this comment by “Turge” had me giggling inside. He writes, “My computer is to the right of me, so the icon is facing the right way. Please don’t change this otherwise I’ll have to move my PC.” Can’t argue with that.

Update: Ged from Iconfactory confirms the icons are facing “the wrong way”.

126 insightful thoughts

  1. I am not really that bothered, but I hope Iconfactory had the amount they want in making these concept icons! I just love them.

  2. @Robin Capper: Most of the time the icons sit in the left side of my screen, thus the “left facing” ones appear to be directed at something besides me.

  3. Regardless of whether or not this is a “problem”, do you guys think they’re facing the wrong way? I’m curious to see how different people perceive this.

  4. *smacks head
    Why not insert some code so that if it’s on the right side of the monitor, it will face in and vice versa… lol
    But man, that front view just works out so much better.

    Just wondering, what is the font you used for “Windows UX?” Is it Helvetica?

  5. @crestind: It’s the font with the name that starts with “S” and ends with “E” and sounds like “Seagull”.

  6. “do you guys think they’re facing the wrong way? I’m curious to see how different people perceive this.”

    The only thing -wrong- about it is that it is facing out of the frame. I don’t perceive either version as facing -me-.

  7. Western people are trained to think and read ‘from left to right, top to bottom’ in that order so maybe Vista’s icons have been skewered this way. Perhaps OS X’s icon philosophy portrays a more universal train of thought?

    BTW that control panel icon really irks me. It really feels out of place and I thought MS was going to unveil the secret GUI for control panel way back in the longhorn days.

  8. I think they ARE faced in the wrong direction (except for the folders) for some reasons:

    – legacy consistence
    – lines moving “up” from left to right are looking positive
    – facing to the edge of the screen
    – and most important: most users may be right-handed. Imagine how you would start that computer on the left or control things on that Control Panel. But it works great for the folders, they are facing to your right hand.

    BTW, also interesting is, that the Computer icon is really small! Compare the actual screenshot above with the concepts! It looks like you could put the PC into the recycle bin, so it must be a 12″ desktop ;)

    And why are there two different blue tones? I prefer the blue from the notebook. The other reminds me of the BSOD.

  9. I think they are facing the ‘wrong’ way, although I hadn’t actually noticed before so can’t say it’s a huge issue for me, but it will probably annoy me now. I’m sure there’s some thinking behind it, but I suppose we’ll have to wait for a blog post from Raymond Chen in about 7 years explaining the reasoning behind it.

    Although he has fairly prompt in explaining this one:

    Why did the shortcut template change in Windows Vista?
    http://blogs.msdn.com/oldnewthing/archive/2007/09/27/5155193.aspx

  10. That’s only 1 line. Now if you draw the other lines, you would find they intersect on the left for the folder – thus facing right. The other icons intersect on the right – thus facing left.

    1. No…
      The lines on the folder that you drew from aren’t parallel on the folder…
      There is no easy way to determine the right-side vanishing point of the folder.
      Of the three icons, the one that isn’t facing the same way is the computer. Actually, the computer doesn’t have valid perspective at all, because it has 3 left-side vanishing points.
      A vanishing point is where drawn PARALLEL lines meet.

  11. Wow never copped onto that before, very interesting.

    Though I have to say I too prefer the original icons that Iconfactory came up with, it would seem that someone at Microsoft thought the icons needed tweaking and came out the worse off for it. Perhaps that is were the facing left idea came out of too.

    Another interesting point is the small icons found in title bars, or list,details mode face straight. A good while back I watched a video on Channel9 when Vista was still in beta and the topic was about the UI and icons in Vista, if I can recall correctly (though this could be wrong) somehow Microsoft never ordered the icons in smaller forms from Iconfactory and so they ended up drawing the icons themselves.

  12. I remember that the Alpha Builds of Longhorn had icons facing the same direction as in XP, and it changed after the Reset, they were in build 5048 exactly (or so) the same as in earlier Longhorn Builds, but turned the other way around. Maybe it has a link with the whole Reset thing, to do a fresh start even in the icons. That’s my guess

  13. I don’t think it’s a real issue. Having the icons facing “into the past” do nothing more than force the user to “look forward.”

  14. They didn’t change it for “some unknown reason”, they changed it just for sake of change, something different. Meanwhile I’m still amazed by how they got everything right with the venerable Windows XP and how everything got messed in “Vish-ta”

  15. Hey all,

    The short answer to your question is, yes, the final icons in Vista are facing the “wrong” way in my opinion. How can I say that with assuredness? I can say that because from the very beginning, we designed the suite to face to the right. It wasn’t until near the very end of our portion of the project did Microsoft decide to flip them and face them left. We were told this happened because the start bar or what ever it’s called in Longhorn swapped sides and so the icons had to face the opposite way.

    I’ve personally never been comfortable with the icon suite facing to the left. Since I know better, they have always seemed “off” as it were. Also, another person made a comment about the two different blues being used (one on the laptop and one on My Computer). The reason for this is simple. The darker blue of My Computer was added by Microsoft after they took over production of the final suite from the core concepts. They altered colors, reflections, etc from our original designs to fit their needs and inconsistencies crept in.

    Hope this helps.

  16. Overanalyze much? :x It’s really not a problem at all, at least not to me. Most people can site actual reasons as to why they dislike Vista. I’d find it odd if someone found icon orientation to be a huge issue.

  17. @Ged Maheux: Thank you for your insight! I’m just wondering, what the Start bar could be?

    I really love the details in the original designs like that little dark edge under the monitor ;) and now I understand, where this blue comes from. This blue display really let me think that the icons where only beta versions! I’m serious. It is a blue tone you would get when you ask a developer: R:0 G:0 B:255 :P

  18. Microsoft have never been too good with following their own guidelines.

    And yes, I agree that they’re facing the wrong way.

  19. the change was made so those icon look right in start menu. The picture that changes when you mouse over the link computers, control panel. If they switch the icon to old ways it will look weird in start menu.

  20. I agree, the icons are facing the wrong way. As icons are typically to the left, they should face right.
    For example in “Computer”, the icons are facing left, away from the following text, where if they face right, it will be a more inline and following design for the eyes. Or so I believe – someone should flip them over and see what happens… But maybe this is the design decision as looking at the cdrom drives in Computer, it provides a nice break/seperator from the text.

  21. If you guys ever noticed, in right to left languages the icons should be point the same direction as of the current vista’s icons. I think the designers (or the persons in charge) are form countries with right to left language (like Iran).
    If there wasn’t any logical reason for the icon’s direction, I think that the Microsoft was ordered to them to building the icons.

  22. @Sven Groot: Yes there are other important issues. But icons are THE one big difference between DOS (command line interfaces) and Windows (GUIs), so you can’t put too much attention to the details, IMO. Hundreds of million of people have to deal with them every day.

  23. actually, I NEVER noticed this, but I did feel more comfy with XP style than I feel today with Vista, and I like both OSes… I tested mirroring the image above to have the icons (except the folder) looking to the right and… bang, I felt like I was using XP all of a sudden, I felt comfy with those… funny that I never even thought about it, but icons looking to the right really do seem to be closer to me… am I completely biased by what I read, or is it genuine? interesting…

  24. I never like microsoft design team work.. they work always felt so wrong in many areas.

    The concept design is a lot nicer than MS did. I was a bit surprised when saw Vista icons is different than IconFactory version. And now, I got the reason and cause.

  25. I, for one, am not affected by where the icons are facing. Although, I might actually agree with “Turge” because my monitor is always at my right, which is (for me) the most comfortable side. Maybe there’s a connection between where the icons are facing and people who are left or right-handed. (I’m left-handed, btw.)

  26. I personally don’t mind Vista icons aiming to the left (though the right-to-left perspective looks horrible in portraits of people, in my opinion).

    What I do find more of an issue is the sudden jarring shift between a forward facing 16×16 icon, and a 17×17 and up icon downsampled from a right-to-left 32×32 icon. The taskbar in very high DPI sizes looks messed up with a mix of resized 16×16 bitmaps in the system tray and 32×32 icons from applications.

  27. Regardless of which way they are facing, if you have a page that has nothing but icons on it, half of them will be facing the wrong way. In Vista the navigation/control pane is on the left(On by default, and nonremovable in many cases), which means there will always be more icons on the right half of your screen. If you:

    Create a new folder.
    Create 10 new folders in that.
    Set the icons size to large and
    picture a line in the middle of the screen.

    4 folders will be to the left, 6 to the right. The way the icons are now, they face the right direction 50% more times than they do the wrong in windowed viewing and navigation.

  28. “This actually conflicts with the official user experience guidelines suggesting the perspective of icons face left.”

    The page you link to shows the perspective icons they way they currently are, it doesn’t conflict with them in follows them. Also, the folders icon don’t “open” differantly, they follow the same perspective as everything else.

    “All things being equal, users first look in the upper left corner of a window, scan across the page, and end their scan in the lower right corner. They tend to ignore the lower left corner. ”

    Meaning the icons follow the layout path recommended, top left to bottom right, empty space in the ignored bottom left.

  29. For me the icons are really facing the wrong way. I always have the icons for My Computer, Network N., Recycle Bin… etc on the upper left, as Windows default for years.

  30. I kind of think it would be interesting if icon resources could be logically connected in self describing ways (xml metadata i guess), so an icon resource can define one graphic as being “left” and another “right” , and could even define other icon styles like “wireframe”; plus the icons could be labeled for themes and change automatically so most will be “windows default”.

    i also think that the 16×16 icons should also be based on a larger PNG that can be magnified given screen resolution—but there be three icon representations, “small”, “medium”, and “large”, that are all scaleable, because you want different icon size representations at any resolution just as you’ll still want higher res icons which are more detailed to still be visually small on the screen from a user perspective, and so has to be readable as small–with different defined shapes.

  31. One thing I’d comment on is that on a default install, the only icon visible on the desktop proper is the Recycle Bin, which is placed in the bottom right hand corner of the screen. (So it appears correct.)
    Likewise, in the Start Menu, the icons sit at the top of the black column, swapping out with the user icon, so again, that doesn’t cause any problems either.

    The real trouble is when the user adds more icons to the desktop and then of course, auto arranges them, where the default, years old logic kicks in and puts them in the top left. If the desktop was in someway easier to keep clean and ordered its stuff by default to the bottom right, none of these off-putting issues would occur but again.. time money.. blah..

    1. I realized this as well, but with a sidbar and gadgets, I keep my recycle bin on the left side, making it face the wrong way. I guess I’ll have to choose between the sidebar or a correctly facing recycle bin.

  32. To those who say this is digging too deep, over analyzing a sitation, I beg to differ.

    If the icons were designed this way from the start, I might agree – the result of carelessness at best. However, this is not the case.

    Someone at Microsoft deliberately decided to make these changes, and the thought process involved throws light on the entire Vista process. If they were rushed, it would have been left as is, so it wasn’t a rush no matter how late Vista was.

    In fact, the care and attention MS put in to designing the Vista sound scheme makes it very clear that a great deal of attention was paid to details like this. This is seems more like a clear indication of how far off track MS has gotten in the whole process.

    Rather than focusing of the core concepts of improvements and functionaly, this was just a change for change’s sake to prove they did something different. The problem is that XP did its job well, and they succeeded in making Vista something different.

    Personally, I thought a round of firings were in order – instead some people got golden handshakes and we got the golden shower that is the Vista UI.

  33. Actually, I always thought that the XP icons were facing the wrong way. Vista icons are pretty much like original Windows 95 icons in terms of “facing”

  34. @Jote: Actually, that’s a really great point. The Windows 95 icons -did- all face left. And it provides an answer to Long’s question:

    “Could this explain why so many people are turned off by Vista? On the same note, facing left also implies “looking back” as opposed to right – “looking forward”. You get the drift.”

    It apparently didn’t for Windows 95 and 98, so the answer would have to be a resounding no.

  35. Thanks. Let me just add that to me XP icons are drawn as if the observer was looking to the left. Think about it. So it’s XP icons that are “looking back”. Windows 95/95 Plus/98/2000/Vista icons are definitely placed as if the observer was looking to the right ie. “looking forward”

  36. Forgot to summarize: in other words, it’s more important if the observer is facing left or right (POV), not the icons themselves!

  37. Sorry Joe, that makes no sense at all. Users don’t “project” themselves into a user interface. They react to what they see, pure and simple. It’s like saying that although the color used on the “My computer” screen is blue, it evokes a feeling of green in most people and green is what we were after. Design doesn’t work like that I’m afraid.

  38. It’s not the icons that are “looking back”, it’s the user. In XP, you look left in relation to the icon, which would be looking back, and in 95, you’d look right, which would be looking forward.

    That said, I think the whole “looking back/forward” thing is nonsensical. Possibly as nonsensical as asking if icons are facing the “wrong” way.

  39. Frank, exactly what I said. But I do somehow dislike the XP icons. I bet it somehow works on a subconciousness level

  40. Alot of people on forums say that Vista’s UI is copied from Apple. Maybe the mirrored look is a confirmation of this. Microsoft is trying to get the user to move the icons to the right side of the screen and drag the taskbar to the top of the screen. The start button’s new orb shape kind of reminds me of an apple. :-p

    Either that, or Microsoft is just trying to appeal to the “lefties” who complain to game developers for making an unrealistically high percentage of “righty” characters in games.

  41. And people on forums are always right. :P

    How is mirroring icons a confirmation of copying the look of an OS with forward-facing icons? How does mirroring icons get people to drag the taskbar to the top? Why don’t they just put the taskbar on top by default if that’s what they want people to do?

  42. Moving taskbar to top was the first thing I do after reformat since 1997. And yet I was not acquainted with MacOS back then. But I digress…

  43. I just like that it’ different from XP to differentiate Vista from XP, 2000, etc. I don’t think it makes a big deal in the long run. The graphics look somewhat realistic and thus caught my eye. I actually prefer the Vista icons because they have more detail and photorealism. However, don’t take these comments as my endorsement for Vista. I feel Vista is the ME of NT operating systems…it just does some weird stuff without any explanation and causes you to lose work. This shouldn’t be the case with a brand new laptop with 2GB of RAM! (Sorry for the OT rant.)

  44. One more thing…

    I noticed comments about the folders perspective being opposite the rest of the icons. This is not the case. While one could make perspective lines going off to the left (thus a right facing icon), there clearly are perspective lines going to the right, thus making these icons also left facing. I think the main reason why folder icons “appear” to be right-facing is because the folder is opened to the right; it’s merely an optical illusion.

    Interesting none the least.

    1. It seems to be facing to the right because when you open a folder (a real folder) you hold it in such a way that the front is facing away from you but the inside is facing towards you. The folder icon gives off this same image.

  45. That’s interesting Long. Maybe you could align your desktop icons to the right so they are facing you.

    Also thanks Tony for posting the link to the Apple Human Interface guide – looks like its worth a read.

  46. “FYI: Mac OSX icons face directly at you – probably the best solution.”

    So what data do you have to back up that claim? your opinion? That’s like saying blue icons are a better solution than red icons or that dark chocolate tastes better than white chocolate. Suggestion for the future: when stating an opinion indicate so instead of claiming something you can’t prove.

  47. @YourOpinionIsJustAnOpinion: If some people dislike left, and some people dislike right, then statistically speaking center would be disliked the least. I thought that was pretty logical.

  48. Re: Your Opinion,

    Making a case for facing towards you is easy. Icons that face forward instead of facing left or right require little if any use of perspective. Perspective forces the user’s mind to “think” more about the concept or what is being displayed as opposed to a symbol or glyph that is drawn straight on. This is the same reason why traffic signs, railway signage, indeed almost any sign you see, all make use of straight on imagery.

    When it comes to quick, simple communication, the use of perspective, shadow, etc is not the way to go. It’s also more and more difficult to render icons that face various directions the smaller they get. Why do most Vista toolbar icons face straight on at 16×16? For this very reason.

  49. Logically it is facing incorrectly, I believe. Usually the mouse pointer is facing going to the left while the icons are facing to the left. Try hovering the mouse pointer into the icons. It is hard to believe that now it is somewhat like a confusing 3D illusion.

  50. @majorgeek: Oh that’s a very good point about the mouse cursor. It looks like it’s “right facing” as well.

  51. Y’all are kidding, right? All this discussion over which way an icon faces? I hear tell that Vista’s got bigger issues than this. . .not that this is an actual issue, mind you.

    The only issue here is to make sure that all the icons are facing the same way, for the sake of consistency.

  52. Actualy, you get alot more details out of stuff from making it look a little to the left! Its like when your drawing a sketch, you usualy tilt it a little to the left, to get more details out of it. And it also adds depth to the icons.

  53. Lillebror,

    Greater detail does not equal better communication. If it did, you’d have 3D rendered pictures of things on stop signs and yield signs instead of flat, graphic glyphs. When it comes to desktop icons, detail isn’t necessarily a good thing.

  54. Intresting never thought of it before.

    Since the vista desktop is supposed to be rendred like a 3D Enviroment much like a game and not drawn, like in XP, they could for windows 7 make the icons 3D Objects on the desktop, and as you move them from left to right they gradually rotate to that they allways face towards the center, and the icons in the center face directly outwards towards you. I dont mean they would either be LEFT CENTER or RIGHT facing, they would all have a gradual rotation as they get further from the center.

    At least it would add some cool effect and Eye Candy to windows 7.

    Who also thinks this is a good idea?

  55. Since the Recycle Bin is usually in the lower-right corner of the desktop on most PC’s by default, should it face the other way? If I move an icon to the right side of the screen, should it flip around and face left, like Andy suggests? No, that would be a complete waste of resources (like the semi-transparent toolbars in Vista). majorgeek makes a decent point about the cursor, but then they should switch to a lefty icon set when left-handed people choose a lefty mouse cursor. Mac OS icons line up on the right side of the desktop, and face right, so maybe Vista is trying to be more like Mac, but in reverse. Or maybe they’re both onto something – maybe people prefer them facing “away”. But in the end, 99% of people won’t care either way.

  56. Three things not yet mentioned in the discussion:

    1. Vista GUI guidelines specifically say that document / file icons should be flat (no perspective). And they are.

    2. The guidelines say that application / device icons should have double perspective (two vanishing points, one on the left, another on the right), set up in a very particular way (look it up). Majority of Vista icons conform to the guidelines, including folders.

    3. The chosen perspective is suitable for Vista’s presentation of folders showing document thumbnails. This is impossible with forward-facing folder icons (and Mac does not do it), and with an XP – style perspective (the folder would then show back sides of the documents).

    Folders with flat documents inside them are the most visible 3D icons in the whole GUI, so #3 probably was the most important consideration. So no, I don’t think the icons are facing the wrong way.

  57. I dont think that this is a problem, this may of been made to make vista look more defined and refreshed from other versions of windows.

    It doesnt matter which way the icons are facing, as long as you get the visual clue no one cares.

  58. T”he only icon in Vista off the top of my head which does this correctly are the “folders” icon which open up towards the right. ”

    Actually this does face left too, the front of the folder is facing left. In XP the folders were rotated 90 degrees and the front face of the folder was facing right.

  59. Why is there even a blog about this? Does it really matter? Is this just to point it out — which I admit, I never noticed and it is an interesting fact to be aware of — or is this a complaint that you don’t like the way they are facing?

  60. Only Microsoft could hire some of the best icon designers in the world and then proceed to flip, screw up the shadowing and strokes, add unnecessary glare and reflections to their work.

  61. Wow. I cant STAND how it’s reversed. Maybe it’s just me, because I’m so OCD about these things, but it drives me crazy.

    And it’s not a simple matter of moving the icons to the right either. I’ve had them on the left for the last ten years. It would just throw off my life’s balance if I switched them D:

  62. In my opinion, the “correct” orientation of the Folders icon is as per XP, i.e. facing _UP_!!! – not right or left. Anyone who has ever used a real life folder knows you CANNOT tilt a folder as indicated in the Vista icons. It makes me really nervous! Police of analogy abuse, do something please!
    I understand from replies above that this specific orientation was chosen so as to be able to show preview of “portrait”-oriented documents inside with front page facing forward.
    Again for me, the gained “advantage” does not outweigh the confusion / discomfort of the nagging pull of gravity which threatens to spill all my carefully sorted folder documents on the floor any moment now…

    1. Good point. I’ve never thought about the gravity part of this. Although, we all know gravity has no effect on what happens to the files. (Unless, of course, you somehow drop and destroy your computer.)

  63. Yes, icons are indeed facing the ‘wrong’ way. Also, the Recycle Bin is made of GLASS!! In Mac OS-X, it’s a proper little waste bin from offices and such, but Microsoft chose a glass bin? (Which by the way, is also facing the ‘wrong’ way). Please, the plastic attrocity from XP was bad enough!

  64. I still think that the folder is facing left. Perhaps you drew the perspective lines off of the wrong edges. I see it opening as if the back flap is opposite the viewer. It might be like holding one out in front of you completely parallel to your face and opening it, instead of holding it while looking at the ‘skinny’ side and opening it. When I reread this, it sounds like I’m rambling.

  65. I never noticed the other icons but the recycle bin icon has been bothering me recently.
    I found this site by trying to google for a solution.

  66. How can we tell them, leave a feedback, etc. about this issue to Microsoft? This issue is really annoying. It is like you are talking to someone’s back.

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