Implementing Stock Graphics in Your Application
Getting the perfect set of stock icons was not a quick job. But you have finally made the choice, and have purchased a perfect set to use in your project. Now when you bought the images, what are you going to do with them? Do you know what file format should be used where, and what resolution, color depth or image style to embed into your project?
There are a few common questions asked by developers. Where would I use 32-bit icons with alpha-channel, and why pick them over traditional 256-color icons? What development environments support translucent images, and what file formats should be used there? Finally, which versions of stock icons to use for the many control elements? Let’s answer these questions one by one.
Choosing 32-bit icons over their 8-bit counterparts seems natural. 32-bit icons feature an extra layer defining a translucency mask. This layer is called alpha channel. Thanks to the alpha channel, images with 32-bit color depth can blend nicely with backgrounds of any color and complexity, having smooth edges and looking great even if your background has a bright color, gradient, or shows an image or pattern. In addition, the alpha channel makes shadows and reflections appear semi-transparent, making them appear natural and overall rendering extremely realistic.
So, 32-bit icons are just the right type to use. The real question is whether you will be able to use them for your project. In reality, 32-bit icons can be used in a handful of situations – and cannot be used in others. If you’re making a Web site, the chances are that your user base already has a compatible browser installed that can display 32-bit graphics with full alpha-channel support. Exceptions are rare, and include Internet Explorer 6 and earlier versions, ancient builds of Mozilla, and a few resource-limited mobile platforms (although most mobile browsers can perfectly show 32-bit images).
For a Web site, you would use 32-bit icons in PNG format. If supporting legacy browsers is important, you can resort to 24-bit PNG icons, converting the original 32-bit images with an icon editor such as IconLover. 8-bit GIF files can be used for designing light Web sites to be displayed on the slowest mobile platforms. Note that GIF files don’t have a full alpha-channel support; instead, they feature a single-bit transparency mask. Again, you can convert your 8-bit images from 32-bit originals with IconLover, or use the GIF versions of icons supplied with your icon set. The GIF icons provided with your set will display nicely on most types of backgrounds, but you can render your own versions if you have a busy or colourful background and want your images blend with it.
Windows applications can typically only use a single type of file depending on what exactly you’re going to use it for. For example, ICO files are normally used as application icons. ICO files pack the same image (or, sometimes, different images) in a number of sizes and color depths within a single file. Windows will automatically choose the appropriate size and color depth depending on the user’s display settings and the location of the icon. It’s best to pack all standard sizes and color resolutions in a single ICO file. Our stock icons already have all standard resolutions and color depths stored in the ICO format; if you want to build your own ICO files, you can use IconLover.
There are dozens of other things we’d love to tell you about making the best use of your newly purchased graphics. You can access a full version of this article covering the many Windows controls and development environments such as Java, C#, .NET and Visual Studio, at http://www.aha-soft.com/faq/integrating-icons-development-environments.htm. You can always find the right icons for your programs or Web sites at www.aha-soft.com.