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What Makes a Great Icon?

Icon Design

Have you always wanted to learn how to make a good icon, but you don’t even know where to start? Icons are becoming more popular these days as they can be used in one context or the other such as an application, a flyer, a book, a website, a directional sign at the train station or airport, etc. Icons are powerful enough to contribute to the overall experience of users, and this is something you should not underestimate in any way. And so, if you want to join the bandwagon of creative professionals who make good icons for a living, this article will teach you how.

What is An Icon?

An icon – derived from the Latin word “eikon” which means “likeness” – is a representation or a sign that stands for an object by an analogy or resemblance to it. Icons are universal in that they speak a common language that is understood by all, irrespective of race, nationality, gender, or even age. An icon can contain a lot of information which is delivered almost instantly. And since icons have always been used to communicate even from the beginning of the world – via cave paintings, hieroglyphs in Egypt, etc. – it is, therefore, safe to say icons are the 21st-century paintings today.

Why We Use Icons Today

The first set of icons used on a computer was conceived about 38 years ago. At the time, David Canfield Smith, a computer scientist, worked with Norman Lloyd Cox, a designer, when they worked on the Graphical User Interface (GUI) of the Xerox Start 8010. Their primary goal was to ensure that users have effortless interaction with the machine, and they were able to overcome creatively by introducing graphic symbols that were familiar to users. These visual symbols were designed to be a reflection of real-life objects which users can interact with.

Computers were also not as common as they are today, and were only found and used in office environments. And so, these two creative professionals realize that the only way to find inspiration for their work is to look at the most common items found in a corporate office. This was the foundation on which common visual language for the digital age was laid, and these have shaped how graphic user interfaces look as well as how they function.

What You Should Consider When Designing Icons

Here are some of the factors you should consider when designing icons:

1. Icons are Designed to Convey Messages Succinctly

Well-designed icons must convey one message or the other. And not only a message but the right message. Some icons have conflicting meanings, so stay away from them.

2. Icons Must Not Be Too Complex

The meaning of every icon must be as clear as possible. There shouldn’t be any hidden intentions or connotations and not too complicated such that it misinforms the user. It shouldn’t take more than a second or two to recognize and understand what an icon stands for.

3. Icons Must Be Designed Within the Context

You should always check to ensure that your icons fit into the context in which they were designed. For instance, icons that look distinct or nice on yellow or white background must also be as clear and functional when displayed on a cluttered website, etc.

4. Icons Communicate to A Target Audience

Every website, service or even app out there is targeted towards a particular audience. If your icons are not designed to do the same, then the purpose for creating them has been defeated.  Therefore, ensure that every icon you create speaks directly to a target audience.

Tips to Follow Whenever You Want to Make A Good Icon

These are the tips to follow when you want to make a good icon:

1. Let Your Icons be Simple

In today’s design world, simplicity is crucial. Therefore, create simple icons using simple colors, shapes, etc.

2. Conform to a Basic Style

If you have to design a set of icons, what makes you stand out is consistency or conforming to a particular style. All your icons must be created the same way and should also follow a basic style. This will help users to identify your icons without much difficulty.

3. Your Icons Should Be Bold

Bold icons catch people’s attention fast. And this is evident when you take a look at the array of icons in the App Store. Do you notice how bold each of them is?

4. Use Eye-catching Colors

Use colors that are conspicuous so that they can quickly grab the attention of users. This is why you should take time to experiment with different colors and settle for the eye-catching ones. But you need to keep in mind that the icon, as well as the project, must be consistent with each other. For example, bright and outstanding colors are usually used for gaming or teenage-related apps and not for business applications.

5. Compare Your Icon with A Competitor’s

One of the best ways of standing out when making icons is by comparing your icon with a competitor’s. And the best way to beat your competitor’s icon is by finding out its strengths, weaknesses, differences, etc. so that yours will stand out.

How to Make a Good Icon

1. Start Your Icon Design with A Grid

A grid – i.e., a simple square block grid – serves as an excellent foundation. You can draw the grid lines or use gridded paper, the kind you worked with when you were in grade school. You can also use a square grid pixel when using design software. Just make sure that you leave enough white space around the perimeter so that you can have enough flexibility.

2. Build Your Icon with Geometry

When making an icon, use elements that people can recognize or connect with instantly. This is the primary reason why most icons have roots in geometric shapes. The most common shapes used in designing icons are triangles, squares, and circles or a combination of two or three of these. When combining these shapes to make an icon, make sure they are easy to read at all sizes.

3. Make Your Icons Unique

You need to be creative when designing your icon. However, keep these in mind whenever you want to make a good icon:

  • Don’t use images. They never look good when they are small
  • Use only flat – or almost flat – icon styles
  • Stay clear of text because most users will not be able to read it
  • Always work with angles that are connected by points on the grid as well as straight lines.
  • Create icons that can work in monochrome and color

4. Give Your Icon Lots of Room

You should give your icon plenty of room to breathe as this will enable users to readily identify them, especially when displayed on the crazy wallpapers out there nowadays. When your design is set right inside the frame, it becomes more distinguishable. You should also keep the following in mind:

  • Always stick with brand colors
  • Always pay close attention to tiny details such as divots, etc.
  • Always design with the smallest size in mind as most icons may need to be displayed on smart devices


Designing icons can be fun, especially if you spend the time to perfect the skill. So, even if you are not an expert, you can always try your hands on any of the icons that are released from time to time by several shops out there.

All you need to do is to get your hands on a set of icons and pick them apart piece by piece so that you can discover the thought process that put them together.