Using Stock Graphics in Your Application
Choosing the right collection of stock images was not a quick job. But you have finally made your mind, and bought yourself the right set to use in your application. Now when you bought the icons, how are you going to integrate them with your project? Do you know what file format should be used where, and what resolution, color depth or image style to use in your development environment for your application?
There are a few common questions usually asked by developers. Where would I use 32-bit icons with alpha-channel, and why pick them over traditional 256-color images? What development environments support 32-bit graphics, and what file formats should be used there? Finally, which versions of stock icons to use for the various Windows control elements? Let’s answer these questions one by one.
Choosing 32-bit icons over their 8-bit versions is easy. 32-bit icons feature an extra layer describing a translucency mask. The layer is called alpha channel. Thanks to the alpha channel, icons with 32-bit color depth can blend nicely with any background, showing smooth edges and looking in place even if your background has a busy color, gradient, or has an image or pattern. In addition, the alpha channel makes shadows and reflections display translucent, making them appear natural and overall rendering extremely realistic.
So, 32-bit icons are just the right kind to use. The real question is if you will be able to use them for your project. In reality, 32-bit icons can be used in most situations – and cannot be used in others. If you’re designing a Web site, then chances are that your user base already has a compatible browser installed that can display 32-bit images with full semi-translucency support. Exceptions are rare, and include Internet Explorer 6 and earlier versions, ancient builds of Mozilla, and a few resource-stranded mobile platforms (although most mobile platforms can perfectly display 32-bit icons).
For a Web site, you would use 32-bit icons in PNG format wherever possible. 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 used with the slowest mobile browsers. Note that GIF files don’t include a full alpha-channel support; instead, they feature a single-bit transparency mask. Again, you can render your 8-bit images from 32-bit originals with IconLover, or use pre-rendered icons supplied with your stock icon collection. The GIF icons supplied 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 icons blend with it smoothly.
Windows applications can typically only use a specific type of file depending on what exactly you’re going to use it for. For example, ICO files can be used for application icons. ICO files contain the same image (or, sometimes, different images) in a number of sizes and color depths within a single file. The system will automatically pick the right size and color depth depending on the user’s display settings and the location of the icon. It’s best to include all standard sizes and color resolutions in an ICO file. Our stock icons already include 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 integrating your newly purchased stock icons. You can read an extended version of this article detailing 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 perfect icons for your projects or Web sites at www.aha-soft.com.