Creating a single effective icon takes careful consideration and hard work. Designing an entire set of icons which function both individually and as a group is quite another undertaking. Each icon must go through a rigorous design process to make it attractive and distinguishable, but also functional as part of a larger overall concept.

A simple example is the iOS game Year Walk, which comprises the main gaming app and another companion app which offers information and guidance. The two icons have the same bold design with colours inverted. Though this is a very simple technique which might not work for a larger set of icons, in this case it is an effective way of distinguishing between the apps whilst making it clear they are two parts of a set. Rather than overcomplicating the design process by creating totally different icons, changing a single feature of an overall design idea creates contrast between the icons whilst retaining the fluidity of the set.


This technique is often employed when designing icons for suites of applications such as Microsoft Office (2011). Each application has its own individual letter and colour in its icon, but the typography in each is the same, creating coherence in the set of icons. Similarly, Adobe Creative Suite 5 utilises a design concept based on the periodic table and adjusts colours and letters for each individual application.

Fluidity in a set of icons is particularly important within applications where each icon denotes a specific action. Let’s take as an example two applications which we use frequently, Microsoft Word (2011) and Sibelius 6. Though the two applications have different purposes and have many specialised icons, the “home” set of icons is very similar.

Icons_MicrosoftWord : Microsoft Word

Icons_Sibelius : Sibelius

Whilst Word’s icons may look more stylish, as a set they do not add to the coherence and accessibility of the application. Many of the other icons in the application are coloured and overall the toolbar can feel cluttered, making it difficult to find the function you require. Sibelius’s icons, on the other hand, are more traditional but still clearly denote their purpose. The rest of the icons in Sibelius are largely black with some spots of colour which do not distract from the purpose of the application. As a result, the simplicity of the icons adds to the overall fluidity of the application as they are functional without being overly complex. Word’s icons would be just as functional without the unnecessary colour which makes the home set of icons feel incoherent. Sibelius’s icons may be less sophisticated but work better as a set.

The Year Walk icons we looked at earlier are similarly simple and coherent. This is not to say that colour shouldn’t be used but that its purpose should be carefully considered as it can also detract from the fluidity of a set of icons. Particularly at smaller sizes, as icons within applications tend to be, simplicity is best and overly complex designs can detract from the application as a whole.

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Adam Parrish

Owner and creative director at Creative Freedom Ltd. Unbelievably cool icon design expert, husband, and father of two awesome girls. A proper decent chappy and thoroughly fab to work with. Ok, so I wrote my own bio…

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