The Creative Penguin: Everaldo and Tackat Talk on KDE Art

By Staff Staff | Posted at 9:06 PM

Every one sees them all the time and would probably miss them if they didn't exist. What are they? Icons! Torsten Rahn and Everaldo Coelho, the predominant icon duo in the KDE artist world, and creators of virtually all of the icons you see in KDE, spent some time with Open for Business' Timothy Butler discussing how the new Crystal icon theme came about, how it ended up replacing Mr. Rahn's HiColor theme, and the overall importance of icons to the enterprise desktop.

This interview begins our multipart series in which we will talk with the best and brightest artists in the entire Free Software world. As art is such an important part of any graphical desktop, it only makes sense to learn more about those who make our desktops look as great as they do. We hope you enjoy this interesting glimpse into the world of the dedicated Free Software community members that don't necessarily turn out code, but instead turn out the stuff that makes all of that code usable and pleasant to work with.

Timothy R. Butler: How did both of you get started with working on KDE? Did you start out with artwork or was there some other project that got you involved?

Torsten Rahn: I became aware of KDE in early 1998 and knew at once that I had to join this project. I studied physics around that time, had many talents and thought about ways in which I could contribute. As obviously there were many great programmers in the project but way too few artists I decided to create some artwork for the project. One of my first contributions was the KDE logo as we know it today.

Everaldo Coelho: I've already done some graphics and icons for my own KDE, but it was just for fun. In 2000 I made a few icons for Conectiva as a freelancer and later I was hired to work at their creation department. Among other things [I did] was taking care of Conectiva Linux's interface and my first KDE job was a splash screen, done in free time. Helio Castro sent it to KDE-Look and this was my first contact with the community. By the way, for me, KDE-Look is a big basket of ideas and there is lots of good stuff there.

TRB: Torsten, could you give us a little background on the HiColor icons that have been featured as the default in KDE since 2.0? Was there something in particular you had in mind when you started with them or did the their style just kind of flow as you created them?

TR: Originally KDE icons were painted using a fixed palette of exactly 40 colors to make sure that KDE looked good on computers that are limited to 256 colors (“locolor icons”). When we had basically finished that work we thought about creating some 48×48 icons that didn't have those limits anymore. As they were going to be used together with the locolor icons they had to use shades of colors that were still based on the 40-color palette somehow. By the release of KDE 1.1.2 we had basically finished this job. For KDE 2.0 I created the concept for a new kind of icon loader; Geert Jansen and Antonio Larrosa mostly implemented it. This new icon loader gave us much more flexibility: icon themes and sizes were handled much better and we introduced a fancy concept which we called icon effects.

So we made HiColor the default icon set. The look of the icons was a result of compromises between good looks, good usability and paying attention to technical limitations. The icons were mostly painted in 2D and we used colors which gave them a clean polished appearance (to make it easy to recognize them) and we put a dark border around the icons as alpha blending was still not available to create some anti-aliasing effect. After I had finished my studies, SuSE decided to hire me in May 2000. I had painted most of the icons so far and I tried to get more people involved in the artist team. Creating icons takes a lot of time and skill, so it was always quite difficult to find people who were encouraged enough to join the work.

TRB: Now, anyone who has been following KDE over the last year knows the dramatic impact the unveiling of Crystal made back in February. Considering the anticipation that formed while people waited for the actual icons, it could almost be dubbed “Crystal fever.” Did you have any idea how big the reception would be to your icons when you announced them, Everaldo?

EC: I really could not imagine this. I didn't have great pretensions when I started Crystal. Without any expectation, I was getting e-mails from people from many countries trying to push me to make more icons. Community is the great pusher behind Crystal. Without the community, Crystal icons probably would not exist.

TRB: On a similar note, what inspired you to start working on such an ambitious project? Did you envision it originally as simply “crystallizing” existing icons or did you always plan to create such a unique (and large) icon set?

EC: When I started to work on Conectiva Linux 8 I thought about creating some customized icons, just a few actually. By that time WinXP was released and Mac OS X was still very new and at Conectiva we wanted to attract users from both systems. That's why I though about an intermediate concept of icons, between realism of Mac OS X and cartoon colored style of XP.

Actually, the Crystal idea has, in my opinion, always been present in KDE. In Highcolor, folders were already transparent and brilliant. The same happened the Kristof Borrey folders. The big difference was the colored strokes. The last version show even more differences because icons are all developed as vectors.

TRB: How was the decision made to discontinue the HiColor icons in favor of Crystal icons? Was there a particular point when it hit you that this was the way to go or was it something more gradual?

TR: In 2001, Frank Karlitschek put up his web page “KDE Look”. This boosted KDE artwork contributions beyond belief. A lot of fresh new icon themes appeared and I saw the chance to get the most active people involved with the work on the default icon set. On the other side I also got quite a bit tired of “HiColor” so I was searching for a fresh new start with a new icon set which was still related to “HiColor” somehow. There were also many other points which made me discontinue the work on HiColor and join Everaldo's work on Crystal:

  • Crystal had a cool name (which is important for promotion)
  • Crystal had a very modern look and a fresh start
  • from the beginning Crystal had a huge potential to attract a big community
  • Crystal was well maintained. So instead of having a default icon theme which was mostly done by one person we had now the chance to have two or even many more people working on the new default-theme.
  • Usability-wise Crystal was good enough to replace HiColor as a default icon theme

Of course it was also a bit painful to discontinue work on something I had put a few thousand hours of work into.

TRB: Everaldo, you've obviously spent a lot of the last year working on these icons. Considering how time consuming it surely was to produce, did Conectiva express any concern about making the Crystal icon set available freely? The only other distributor I know of that developed a new KDE icon set (Lycoris) has placed it under a non-Free license, so I'm curious if that type of licensing crossed Conectiva's mind at all?

EC: Conectiva is a company that loves the Linux community. Most of its employees and directors are true Linux enthusiasts. While distribution, Conectiva uses resources developed by the community and it's fair enough to share back its resources with the community. Crystal icons are only one of Conectiva's contributions. But there are many others. Roberto Teixeira and Helio Castro are active KDE developers. And there are others like Gustavo Niemaeyer, in LinuxConf, and Afredo Kojima, in windowmaker and synaptic. And many others that I can't remember (forgive-me, I am a designer and not a developer :)

TRB: Recently, you posted an entry on KDE-Look simply entitled “new icon theme.” [link] This preview appears to be a variation of the Crystal style, but has some minor differences from Crystal SVG. Will this be a completely separate icon theme, and if so, will you continue to maintain Crystal as well?

EC: It will be a new theme of icons (it doesn't still have name) and it will be separate from Crystal, however while it uses the same palette of colors, in this new theme I want to do a more consistent perspective, that is a flaw in Crystal. Also, the black borders will make the icons seem more readable in small sizes.

Beyond those of that theme, I will be working with Helene Durosini on the design of Linux-Mandrake 10 and I will also make some icons for theKompany.

And yes, I will still maintain the Crystal [theme].

TRB: My understanding is that HiColor icons (as well as the HiColor style) will remain the default in KDE 3.1 [Editors Note: This changed after we posed this question]. The new Crystal icons seem really complete, would you shed some light on why they are not being used as the default?

TR: Crystal SVG is the default in KDE 3.1. It's a special version of Crystal that uses mostly pixmaps originally based on SVG files. In KDE 3.2 we will make heavy use of SVG: Icons are stored in svgz-format (compressed SVG) including some small 16×16 and 22×22 pixmap versions that are optimized by hand. This way, programmers can make use of the icons at any size: We can use them to decorate widgets, for documentation, and as a clipart resource for KOffice. To create these icons, we plan to use Karbon, which has made huge progress recently (see here [Crystal Screenshot] and here [General Screenshots] for impressing screenshots).

TRB: There is a lot of other fine artwork in KDE besides the icons. Have either of you been working on any other types of art for KDE?

EC: I am working on a skin for Noatun, the KSplash for KDE 3.1, and an icons game for Kopete besides other jobs for the UnitedLinux KDE.

TR: Apart from some DTP stuff for KDE promotion, I did mostly icons. But we should also mention another person who had a major big impact on the look of KDE: Qwertz created various 3D images and wallpapers for KDE - one of the best-known wallpapers among them is certainly “default blue”. I think his finest and largest contribution is Keramik, which he invented.

TRB: For the last few releases of Crystal, you've listed a number of additional artists in the credits of the icon set. What have these other people contributed to Crystal so far? Also, what are you doing to keep the same style across a team of artists?

TR: We will set up a general website for Crystal which will include tips for painting crystal icons as well as a style guide and a download section for the Crystal community.

TRB: Prior to Crystal, there had been some other large scale attempts to update the KDE icon set, such as Kristof Borrey's iKons. Did these designs influence your work on Crystal?

EC: The job of Kristof Borrey is very good and influenced me, mainly in the beginning. The default crystal folder was inspired on the iKons folder.

TRB: GNOME 2.0 presented a fresh new look, including its own new set of icons. Have either of you had the opportunity to look at this desktop, and if so, what do you think of their artwork design?

TR: I like the GNOME 2.0 icons much better than the GNOME 1.x set. The very first GNOME icons were meant to look very realistic. While this was an interesting and impressing approach it didn't give good results in terms of usability. GNOME 2.0 icons are much better in this regard. Also it's interesting to see the “ping pong” of ideas: while the initial GNOME icons had some influence on the KDE 1.1.2 icons it's obvious that the KDE style had some impact on the new GNOME icons as well.

EC: Jimmac and Tiger are generous, the work of them both is very good and Gnome2 is pretty and very intuitive thanks to them. I am big fan of them.

TRB: Would you say that high quality artwork is something that should be of interest to IT managers? Do you think it can increase productivity?

TR: Definitely. Icons are very important as they are almost the only part of the interface that can directly be seen by the user. So they have to be painted in a way which meets the taste of most people and which meets usability requirements as well.

TRB: Thank-you, gentlemen, would you like to leave us with any closing thoughts?

TR: Yes of course :-) If you count sheep icons every night and if you dream in pixels, please join the KDE/Crystal artist team!

EC: A thought. I would say that “to want is only authentic when it's translated into an action”. There is something wonderful in God's creative process (you can check that in first chapters of the Bible). When God says, “Let there be light”, he creates light. The greatest problem of artists is that they say, “Let there be art” and do nothing. :)

I'd like to thank God for giving me the grace of making Crystal. If it was not for him, nothing that is would have been made. Thanks Jesus.