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From icon design to creating masterpieces

In this article, we will tell you how you can turn from a simple icon designer into a real professional. You will learn how originated the design of the icon, at which stage he is now, and what can we expect in the future and will share with you useful tips.


Imagine a situation where you received an order to expand an existing set of icons. And then, when you saw the existing set of icons, they confused you. They were very simple, and it was quite difficult to reproduce the same simplicity, because you are used to spending a lot of time on them.

Here you can ask yourself a number of questions related to icons, such as "what makes a good icon different" and "how much time should I spend on an icon?". We will share some answers with you. The article also contains the opinion of leading icon designers. We will also look at how icon design started, what is happening to it now, and (more importantly) what will happen to it in the future. So make yourself comfortable, let's go!

The first icons

So where did these little graphic masterpieces come from? It all started back in 1973, when computers were little more than a DOS-based system, and users communicated with the machine using commands. This was a time when graphic design didn't exist in computers. You couldn't operate a computer with a simple click of your finger.

As you can imagine, this was not the easiest way to mess with a computer, and a fairly well — known company in the US-Xerox-made every effort to try to solve this problem. In the same year, they released the "Xerox Alto", which became the first computer in history to work using a graphical user interface (GUI for short). Less than two years later, the famous Mr. Steve jobs and his friend Steve Wozniak adopted the ideas developed by Xerox and developed the world's first commercial operating system for using a graphical interface. And it was called Macintosh. Ladies and gentlemen, this is where icons were born!

The first icons appeared in Apple, on the Macintosh.

The first icons appeared in Apple, on the Macintosh.

This, of course, was a revolution. Directories now had a graphical representation that was displayed as folders, files were similar to notebooks, and clocks and calculators were still displayed. A computer icon is an icon displayed on a computer screen and used to navigate a computer or mobile device.

Icon design tips

Simple and concise

This is arguably one of the most important aspects of icon design. Among other things, icons should be simple, clear and concise. In most cases, you need to create an icon within a limited space. You must be able to present your product, service or action clearly and to the point.

Simple and concise free icons

The best icons are those that look good in black and white as well. Once you've checked out the black and white version, you can move on to adding color.

In some cases, it might be nice to use one object, or one symbol. This method usually works well, although sometimes a different object may be needed. Any icon containing more than two objects runs the risk of being incomprehensible, as it cannot hold attention. If you have a similar situation, try removing some of the objects until your message is clear.
The icon should represent a user action.


If you were given the task of creating a set of icons, then they should have a certain sequence in everything. This can be done in the form of a color palette, shape and objects. Consistency must also be present in the application. What happens when your user clicks on an icon? Is the entire screen consistent with the style of your icons? If the answer is no, then you might want to reconsider some of your decisions - users often make a connection between two events: clicking on an icon and the appearance of a new screen or window. If you break this rule, you will lose user trust.

Define your target audience

Which person is most likely to click on the icon? Is the icon aimed at an audience aged fifteen or sixty-five? Where are the users from - Russia, China or England? If you are creating an icon related to the theme of food, then there is no point in using the image of chopsticks as cutlery if the icon is focused on the English market. You have to think about it and make sure your target audience will treat your design well.

Brighter, louder

Now more than ever, your icons need to stand out. App stores are popping up all the time, offering a wide variety of devices, from smartphones to smart TVs.

Icons designed by Ramotion and George Gliddon provide an example of how icons should attract attention

Icons designed by Ramotion and George Gliddon provide an example of how icons should attract attention

If you are creating an icon for an application, then you need to pay special attention to it. This is your way to advertise your app. People pay attention primarily to design. You might have a great app, but people won't buy it anyway unless they're attracted to the icon. Consider: Will you walk into a store that has a terrible sign? So here: not everyone wants to know more about your application or buy it.

Make sketches - create a concept!

Many of us started our acquaintance with art with Photoshop - it was a notebook, and a mouse was a pencil. Surely many have never even thought about sketches before. But it's safe to say: "Sketches will help you." You don't need to be the world's best illustrator to sketch.

Icon sketches can serve as a great starting point for your design

Icon sketches can serve as a great starting point for your design.

A sketch does not at all require a realistic idea of ​​what can actually be seen, it is rather a method of creating the main idea, inspiration, concept. From that day on, I always carry a sketchbook with me and often sketch ideas for icons. This can really be invaluable and can save you tons of time. This will help you get the foundation of your icon, and can serve as a decent starting point for your final design.

Learning practice

Here's an excerpt from an interview with talented icon designer Alex Volkov :

Icons created by Volkov. They showcase progress in icon design

Icons created by Volkov. They showcase progress in icon design.

What is the most important factor in icon design?

The most important factor is finding the most expressive style for the image of the icon, which will suit the task and effectively fulfill its function. First of all, the icon must be beautiful.

How long should you spend on an icon?

It depends on the task, idea and chosen icon style. This can take anywhere from two to sixteen hours. This is the time it takes me to create the icon, while the time to find ideas and approve them with the client hesitates and can sometimes take much longer than the implementation of the idea.


Here are some tips to help you become an icon design expert. Of course, as with all other areas of design, the more you try, the more mistakes you make. But the more mistakes you make, the more experienced you become.

Adjust the light correctly

If you want to add realism to your icon, it is important to understand which side the light is coming from. You should be able to imagine an imaginary light falling on the icon.

This enlarged example shows us the light source and how it will hit the icon. From this we can determine where the highlights and shadows should be. When rendering, we can add light and shadow, just like in reality.

Beauty is in the details

When creating an icon, attention to detail is very important: highlights, shadows, reflections, material properties. Look at the world around you and think about how it would look in real life. Interaction with light and surrounding materials is of great importance. Light can often fall in different ways in different weather conditions. For example, light in an empty room and in a smoky one will fall in different ways. When we take these factors into account, we can create more than just the shape of an icon, we can create icons with specific moods and feelings.

Bad Icon Signs

  • Using text
  • Too many objects in a confined space
  • Did you immediately design the icon in the required size? Not? Poorly.
  • Is it universal for all countries? For example, a police car in Russia is different from a car in England.

Application icons

With the proliferation of smartphones (primarily iPhones) and applications, icons have changed. Icons have never looked so real, so filled with depth, color and intensity.

This example shows the different sizes of iPhone icons sets restrictions and mandatory requirements for icons. They must fit within a 57 x 57px margin (114 x 114px on iPhone4 high-res Retina displays). These constraints define the design, and as a result, we now have a large number of weird and awesome icons that were based on the iPhone's square icon limitation.

These restrictions have even created a new style of icon design, such as these icons by Livie Leontidis, Ramotion and Jackie Tran Anh.

The future of icon design

By looking at the path that icon design has gone through, we can try to predict how icons will evolve in the future and what forms they might take. Of course, the future of icons largely depends not only on the basic principles of good design, but also on the tools that are used to create them. For example, for every new feature that is added to programs like Photoshop, it could help shape the future of icons. However, the basic principles of good icon design remain the same. And here's the time to introduce you to someone who knows, maybe more than others, about good icon design - Rob Janoff . Rob designed the apple logo back in the 70s. Here's what he says about good design.

“I usually strive for simplicity and elegance. With the advent of technology, more and more complex visualizations of icons appear. Some of them are nice to look at, but sometimes technology replaces concept. The simpler the icons, the easier it is to remember them "

To understand the future of icons, we must consider the platforms on which they are used. In a recent interview, Bill Gates was asked what he expects from the Internet in the future. He replied:

"Super-fast Internet connectivity and hardware improvements that will allow the World Wide Web to give us 3D information."

This may provide some insight into the future of icons. Perhaps they could get away from flat 2D objects and become part of the world around us. Icons could potentially become handles that we pull, dials that we rotate, and objects that we press.
The icons of the future will become better, more professional and more interesting. Designers are already trying to make beautiful eye-catching designs, and it is hoped that this trend will continue.


There is no doubt that icons have changed a lot in recent years, and who would have thought that designers would spend so much time and effort on such small 16x16px icons!
It is these icons, however, that help us navigate our devices more easily and ultimately enrich our lives day after day. Can you imagine how dull life would be if we were in the 70s and we only had to use commands? It would be terrible. Fortunately, a lot has improved since then, and our job as designers is to push the boundaries when it comes to icons, to embrace modern technology to be able to create icons that have never been created before. If you're just getting started with icon design, now is the perfect time to start, as you are now armed with the fundamental knowledge from this article that will guide you on the path to creating your own masterpieces.
Until next time, happy design!

Based on article of Naikom

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