Jun 102011
 

Implementing Stock Images in Your Application
Choosing the right collection of stock images was not an easy task. But you’ve made the choice, and bought yourself the right set to use in your project. Now when you bought the images, how are you going to integrate them with your project? Do you know what file format should be used where, and what size, 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 choose them over traditional 256-color images? What development environment support translucent 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.

Ready-made icon files for designers

Picking 32-bit icons over their 256-color counterparts seems logical. 32-bit icons feature an extra layer defining a semi-transparency mask. The layer is called alpha channel. Thanks to that alpha channel, images with 32-bit color depth can integrate nicely with any background, having smooth edges and looking great 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 semi-transparent, making them look natural and overall rendering extremely pleasing.
So, 32-bit icons are just the right type 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, the chances are that your target audience already has a compatible browser installed that can show 32-bit graphics with full alpha-channel support. Exceptions are far and between, and include Internet Explorer 6 and earlier versions, ancient builds of Mozilla, and a few resource-stranded mobile browsers (although most mobile platforms can still show 32-bit images).

For Web use, you should use 32-bit icons in PNG format wherever possible. If maintaining support for legacy browsers is important, you can fall back to 24-bit PNG icons, converting the original 32-bit images with an icon editing tool 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 have a full alpha-channel support; instead, they offer a single-bit transparency mask. Again, you can render your 8-bit icons from 32-bit originals with IconLover, or use the GIF versions of icons supplied with your stock icon collection. The GIF icons provided with your set will display nicely on most types of backgrounds, but you can produce your own versions if you need a bright, colourful background and want your icons blend with it.

Windows programs can normally 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 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 assemble all standard sizes and color resolutions in a single ICO file. Our stock icons already include all standard resolutions and color versions stored in the ICO format; if you want to build your own ICO, you can use IconLover.

There are dozens of other things we’d love to tell you about using 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 the right icons for your projects or Web sites at www.aha-soft.com.

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