Plan ahead. Getting the most out of your icon design.

Plan ahead. Getting the most out of your icon design.

Icons have been around for a very long time. You can probably trace back some of the original icons back in to the Egyptian hieroglyphics. And just like today, they all represent specific concepts and information. They can give you directions, highlight information, tell you what something is and in some cases, even keep you from seriously hurting yourself.

Now, with today’s technology boom, icons have really come into their own. We don’t always have enough time to find what we’re looking for and icons help us along to get, find and navigate our way through the technosphere, and most of the time, without words. Plus, with a more and more global marketplace, icons help us communicate effectively without language barriers.

As with any boom on the internet, there is always a glut of content available and icons are no different. Just do the standard Google search and you can find a virtual gold mine of inexpensive or free icon sets to hook up your blog, website or what have you.

But, what if you have something a little more obscure you need an icon for, like ostrich farming? Well, my guess is you won’t find that right there next to print.

What if you’ve trolled the internet for the last three days and you just can’t find the style you are looking for? Or, perhaps you’re trying to find some that will fit your company’s new branding look.

It just may be that you’re going to be in need of either creating your own icons, or hiring a professional to design them for you. Well, then. Here are a few things to consider in your quest.


Icons aren’t just those nifty little pictograms you see on your car’s dashboard anymore. They are very simple, like the signage in airports or hyper-realistic, like some recent software versions of the Apple OSX user interface.

Style really depends on the appropriateness of the medium they appear. Are they being used on a smart phone or website? Or is it for environmental signage?


Of course, no icon is doing its job without relaying the correct information. Can the viewer understand the message? Or is it too obscure a concept to convey in that size or medium? Sometimes, there is too much artwork and the icon needs to be simplified. If the icon is communicating danger, can the viewer understand that quickly enough?


Concept can be one of two things, the concept for the icon itself and/or the overall concept for the icon set.

Now, not all icons need to convey a concept, but in some interfaces, they do. To set your icon set apart, there needs to be a common theme that seems appropriate to the task. Do the icons have a recognizable shape or color scheme? How about tone? Are they funny or serious? Cool looking or strictly informative?


Not only does an icon need to read well, it needs to be able to scale up or down without losing its readability. Depending on its use, it might need to be used as a 16px web icon or large as a spot illustration or graphic element for POS materials. Simple is better when it’s small. Detailed icons can work better at larger sizes. Most importantly, you need to know how it’s being used before you start designing, because a rasterized or Photoshop image won’t scale up well.


Where the icons will be used is an important piece of information. This governs how simple or complex the icon can be and how the design is approached. If it’s highly detailed, will the icon reproduce well in a small size on a coarse substrate or textile materials? Perhaps you should go simpler. Are they only being used electronically, or will there be printed materials, too? All good things to consider.


Color has as much to do with look, tone and feel as it does with context. Where the icon gets used governs color use nearly as much as your project budget. If an icon goes on a vehicle dashboard, it’s not likely to need more than one or two colors to do its job.

Creating icon badges for a social media app might give you a bit more freedom to be more illustrative. But, if the icon appears on a busy background, maybe a simple design will work better.

Don’t be afraid to get adventurous, if you have the chance to incorporate a really good color scheme, it can make the icon set sing.

Would you like text with that?

Why is this important, you say? Well, some icons don’t have the luxury of having any support text, therefore they need to work harder at getting their visuals to be easily understood. Sometimes, the visual is easy to get across, but other times a concept could get misunderstood for something else – especially if they have similar subject matter.

How will they be produced?

Seems obvious enough, but is it? If your icons get carved out of a hunk of cedar at a campground, you might want to make sure the visuals are simple enough to reproduce well, right?

Are they going to appear on an iPad app with that nifty retina display? Better make sure they’re sharp looking, right?

So, there you go. That’s my handy little guide to getting the most out of your next icon design project. Hope I didn’t leave anything out.

Do you have anything to add? I’d like to hear your thoughts.