Big Sur’s icons die in the Dock

We’re only two months on since Big Sur’s major redesign, and despite the initial outcry, I seem to have settled into much of its new look and feel. There are some intractable issues which remain, though: rounded rectangles for QuickLook thumbnails and previews still grate every time, and I continue trying to drag the occasional busy window Title Bar by the wrong bit. But it’s app icons which keep foxing me. The frequency with which I open the wrong Apple app from the Dock isn’t getting any less.

Apple’s new macOS Human Interface Guidelines start off with the best of intentions, saying “Beautiful app icons are an important part of the user experience on all Apple platforms. A unique, memorable icon evokes your app and can help people recognize it at a glance on the desktop, in Finder, and in the Dock.” But it’s all downhill from there to “In macOS 11, app icons share a common set of visual attributes, including the rounded-rectangle shape, front-facing perspective, level position, and uniform drop shadow.” Even “If you must alter the shape, prefer subtle adjustments that continue to express a rounded rectangle silhouette.”

If you’ve got a large display, your Dock might be as busy as mine. It seems to have collected a total of around 66 app icons at the moment, although I do periodically perform housekeeping on it, lest it gets really out of hand. I rely on the following to distinguish the apps there:

  • colour,
  • form or shape,
  • pattern, internal detail,
  • position within the Dock.

With Apple’s edict, all its own app icons, and those of many third parties, have now adopted the rounded rectangle, making them uniform, and in many cases barely distinguishable. Let me illustrate.


With that many icons to display, even along the long side of my 27-inch display, Dock icons don’t get much space, and readily look indistinguishable. The easiest are my own apps and others from before the redesign, which use every means available to make them distinct. (You can click on these images to view them in their own window.)


There is one Apple app icon in those, QuickTime Player, which is among very few which has so far been allowed to cheat by looking as it’s still circular, as it’s superimposed on a near-black background. That’s hardly a subtle adjustment that continues “to express a rounded rectangle silhouette”.

Compare those with Apple’s new compliant app icons:


Two – the App Store and Developer apps – are almost identical even if you press your nose against the display and squint. Messages and FaceTime are also almost the same, and I regularly open the wrong one now, sometimes even Archive Utility by mistake. Subtleties like the viewing loupe on Preview vanish once you’re working with the small icons seen in many Docks.

What’s even more frustrating is that Apple does understand the value of form or shape in the recognition of Toolbar Icons, for which it states: “Make toolbar icons distinct, but harmonious. When icons are easily distinguishable, people learn their purpose and location quickly. Use variations in shape and image as primary differentiating factors.”

I’m now reliant on position within the Dock for distinguishing several of Apple’s app icons. What works neatly in Launchpad and iOS/iPadOS doesn’t do at all well in the Dock. So for my own app icons, I can either cheat by superimposing them on a near-black rounded rectangle, which looks silly in Light Mode, or leave them as they are.

If you’ll forgive me, I don’t intend changing mine, and the sooner Apple realises its mistake, the better for our Dock use.