Flat icons and what we’ve termed “almost flat” icons are currently carrying a certain level of vogue with them in the world of software. However, that’s not to say that 3D-style icons aren’t as effective or innovative. In fact, in the current climate, if 3D icons are designed well enough, they can go above and beyond what can be achieved with flat icons.

As we all know, people relate to the external world around them through visual and linguistic systems made up of signs and representations. Our whole understanding of the world is mediated by these systems of meaning. It’s no different when it comes to technology, including modern gadgets and computer software.

Our relationship with technology is conveyed mostly through visuals. This is where icons come in: they are signposts, if you will, by which various functions of an application or operating system are signified to end-users.

Realistic 3D Icons
Realistic 3D Icons

Stand out from the crowd

Trends shift over time, and as homogeneity begins to impact icon design one way or the other, a common language of icons comes to reign. As we’ve talked about before, there has been a trend towards a flat, minimalist style in icon design for a while. What this means for designers is that as similarity increases across the spectrum, new opportunities for innovation are generated. It is in this context that 3D-style icons are at the forefront of innovative design. It’s for this reason that designers are finding 3D icons increasingly in demand by companies that want their products to stand out from the crowd.

Designers know that even a small 3D element in an icon design can make an ordinary icon something exceptional. We’ve spoken a few times about the shadow techniques used in “almost flat” designs, but it doesn’t stop there. Playing around with effects such as materials, rendering, or gradients, can make a 3D icon really grab user attention. Consistent use of shadows and lighting in a 3D icon is also important if you’re designing icons for a whole system. The point is, what makes 3D icons effective is that there are many more technical and visual possibilities than there are with flat designs, giving designers the edge in terms of individuality and creative possibilities. These techniques in turn enable 3D icons to potentially be much more effective visual signposts to end-users.

3D Android Icon
3D Android Icon

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A more effective visual signpost

As we’ve discussed in earlier blog posts, 3D design techniques can give icons the edge over flat icons because they enable designers to create icons that line up with how end users actually visualise the objects of understanding. In short, with 3D techniques, we are able to elevate icons beyond an abstract level and towards a dimension where the icons we are making are actually much more effective visual signposts than they would be otherwise. However, it is important to make sure that your designs remain simple. If an icon gets too busy with flashy effects, it will become distracting and alienating for users. Therefore subtlety is key.

If done well, 3D icons can do more for an interface than a flat icon ever could. They allow much more room for creativity, can help a product stand out from the crowd, and can be functionally more useful and understandable to users. Like any type of design, though, quality lies in the work of the designer, rather than any specific ‘toolkit’ of methods. It’s about how you go about making your icons stand out that really makes the difference.

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