Icon design has developed over the years as computer-aided design has become more advanced. There is now a greater demand for three-dimensional images, as they help 3D arrowsto represent objects3D arrows or signs as we actually visualise them: solid, and with light, shadow and depth. This contemporary and polished look has made three-dimensional icon design one of the approaches most sought-after by businesses and companies for designing images that represent important functions and tools in applications.

Commonly-used software programs for designing vector graphics or multi-dimensional images which are popular with graphic and icon designers include Adobe Illustrator, CorelDRAW and the Gnu Image Manipulation Program (GIMP). If you know what you are doing with these programs, they can be very effective tools for turning those rough pencil sketches into a sleek-looking set of icons, transforming flat polygons into 3D images. The introduction of, for instance, Vista 3D icons has set a new standard in the design of icons and the way they appear on user interfaces and applications. Some have even gone so far as to apply simple animation to such icons, to indicate that they are processing or in use for example.

There are many methods of applying 3D effects to icons. These include bevelling to show perspective, and different forms of rendering to create the illusion that the image is not flat. Adding a gradient to the shading can give the impression of dimension, as can inserting shadows into your icon. Highlighted shading and reflection will make it stand out from the page or screen. Combining all of these, as well as adjusting the opacity or transparency of your icon, will give it that realistic look, according to the style you are going for. Forms of rendering can also give texture to 3D icons: the impression of reflective metal, wood, fur (take a look at the new Mozilla Firefox icon) or even liquid.

It is not only rendering that gives your icons that extra dimension. There are other techniques you can use to achieve a subtle 3D look without going over the top. For example, the icon for a PDF or Word format file shows a sheet of paper with a corner folded down. This small touch prevents it from appearing flat or drab.

Whether you are redesigning from scratch or tweaking an original design, icons are a great way to update a product and your company image. One good example of simple adjustments to an original icon is the evolved design of Apple Inc. icons. The use of rendering and animation can make the dashboard icons dimensional enough almost to let you reach out and grab hold of them. Apple’s journey alongside software and design development is manifested in the various forms of its famous bitten apple logo.

When in the right hands and using a software program that meets your needs, the design journey can be relatively easy. It is something accessible to everyone, not just the big wigs out there, and it is surprising how many people do not realise it. The beauty of computer-aided design is you can have exactly what you want. Seeing the sketchy icon you envisaged in your head finally pop up on screen can be extremely satisfying.

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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