We are back to basics this week: our contributing editor looks at some of the elements of effective icon design.

A set of well designed icons can make a big difference to the look and usability of any website or application. Whether you are on the designing or commissioning side of the icon equation, it’s good to never take their design for granted. So let’s revisit some basics of great icon design:


Since the introduction of the mouse, modern computer users have got used to clicking on icons and seeing amazing results – from being taken to other pages of their own work and other websites to performing complicated tasks, from ordering books or flowers to even finding a life mate! Indeed, a lot is expected of the icon. So probably the most important aspect of an icon is its functionality. An icon must be able to do the job it is designed to do: enabling the user to move around in an application or a website with ease and clarity as to precisely where they are, and to perform the functions an application is designed to do. The signposts that the icons represent must also make it clear and easy for the user to get to the next stage of their “journey” or get to a safe place such as “help” menus from where they can get guidance.


Next, you have to consider the particular context in which an icon will be used. Is it for specialist or general usage? Is it for in-house usage within a single company or global use in a large corporation? These and similar considerations will determine some of the choices the designer must make as to the choice sizes, colours, saving formats, etc. for the icon. Also to be considered is whether there are quite established traditions for icons in that context or not. For example, in word processors or spreadsheets, there are many conventions as to the icons which stand for “open”, “close”, “save” and so on. If you have to flip some of these conventions on their head, make sure the reason behind your choices are solid and justifiable.


Great designs tend to have simplicity as a design principle. Of course, the idea of simplicity is not to be confused with easy or plain. Often a design that may look simple has had a lot of thinking and artistry behind it. Most of the icons that are seen in games, word processors, spreadsheets, cameras, sat navs and similar gadgets do a great service in making the use of those applications and gadgets easy or manageable for most users partly because they look “simple”. It may take a lot of work to get icons to be clear and appear “simple” at the same time, but it is worth the effort.


It may be necessary to take into account whether the set of icons are stand-alone or part of a set of applications or even part of a company’s brand look. This can either give a free hand to the designer or compel him or her to operate within certain boundaries.


Finally, there is the wow factor – the inexplicable magic of creating. It’s the special touch that adds something extra to the finished work which makes a client go, “Wow, that’s brilliant!” or “That’s even better than I imagined!” This aspect of icon design relies on the skill and confidence of the designer as well as openness to surprise or ability to tap into the collective genius pool out there in the ethers. It may come from being a little playful or cheeky or whatever is the inspiration of the day, but it’s what adds panache to all art and artistic expressions. So be a little playful and open to creative magic – whether you are on the design or commissioning side of the icon equation.

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