There are some simple, basic methods of good icon design which can yield great results if they are followed. Sometimes some designers stray too far from the basics by trying to be too original. Originality is important, but it’s also important to remember the basics. Here we outline some easy, memorable keys to effective icon design.
If you’re designing a range of icons for a project, one of the easiest keys to making your designs effective is consistency. Consider a basic style for your entire icon set and stick to it. This applies to whether you’re making an entire set of desktop icons, or the icons for an app. It’s a good idea to make the icon used to access a program internally consistent with the icons in that app. Effective use of colour schemes, for example, can go a long way towards this goal.
This almost goes without saying, but it’s good stick to the age-old maxim of KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid!). Even if you’re going for a particular theme, at the end of the day icons must be effective visual signposts to the end-user. Even using primary shapes can be an easy and helpful way of achieving this. If your designs become too complex, they will look out of place next to other icons in the system. Icons need to be organic and fit into their ‘family’ if they are part of a larger set of icons, and simplicity is the best way of going about this. This doesn’t necessarily imply following current design trends to the letter. It’s obviously important to stay creative. But an icon needs to communicate a message to a user, plain and simple.
Simplicity and consistency can go a long way to making icons versatile. Icons should be suitable for a range of environments, particularly if your icon will used across platforms. This includes web browsers. Versatility also allows you to use a set of icons in a range of different projects. You can always come back to them and edit them for different purposes.
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With the global nature of the internet, your designs may have a potentially worldwide audience. It’s important to remember that cultural norms and signs can vary massively from country to country. It’s therefore vital to make sure your designs utilise universal imagery. An example often given is using an envelope for an icon signifying ‘Mail’. This is because it is a universal symbol for mail. It’s a good idea to keep in mind the sorts of desktop icons used by the big operating systems, such as Windows and OS X, as they set some of the rules of the game. It’s a good idea to take account of the design language that already exists, and don’t let your icons become too obscure.
We’ve spoken a lot about consistency and simplicity in this post so far. But it’s also important that your icons remain differentiated from one another. When going for a consistent style, don’t let your icons become too homogeneous. This will confuse users and impede their interaction with a system. Don’t get lazy. A poor set of icons will often be the same basic design with only a small element changed between each.
A classic example of this might be an Accountancy Software package where every icon contains a monetary theme such as a pile of money. Yes, all these icons will look related to accountancy and money; but hang on a minute, the user already knows this as they are using an accountancy package. What the designer has really done here is made all the icons look very similar (bad for usability) and reduced the amount of very precious space on his icons to display the actual message. This is such a common mistake and it is, in my experience, often driven by the client. But for me this breaks the golden rule of icon design already mentioned, ‘Keep It Simple, Stupid’!
The five tips we’ve given above can be used in conjunction with many of the icon design tutorials we’ve shared on this blog: for example, Step by Step Illustrator Icon Design Tutorial or Designing Cross Platform App Icons. We’ll be happy to hear about your experiences of using our tips and tutorials.