Understanding the principles of icon design for user interfaces

A guide to create beautiful icons that fit coherently within your designs

  • Digital Agency
  • Icon Design
  • UX/UI Design


Designing a top-notch icon family needs a thoughtful approach, an expert eye, small iteration, and lots of practice. Before approaching icon design, there are a few important guidelines and principles that are worth knowing. If you want to create beautiful icon designs, have a look at a holistic approach to problems like size, style, audience, simplicity, and perspective.

This article provides you with an excellent starting place for creating icons that work effectively together and fit coherently within your designs.

Approach icon design holistically

Icons should fit perfectly in user interface designs. You can either design them for mobile applications or websites. Icons are elements that are fused together to create something meaningful. Although they are valued for their aesthetic solutions individually, they don't work alone. Hence, carefully examine your icon designs relative to the graphic system you want to use them in. Ensure each one is different from its surrounding icons while still working together to form a whole design.

Consider your audience

You will always have several considerations whether you're designing a landing page for a company or a product to be sold internationally. Therefore, when designing icons, cultural considerations are essential. Symbols can differ for standard elements you may want to use for your designs.

The size of the icon design

There is an intrinsic temptation to grade the design and try to use it at any size when you go vector and design your icon in Illustrator. However, this doesn't work with icons. What looks better at 512px may look somewhat blurry smear at 16px. Icons should possess a base design used as a starting point, but every output size needs to have its unique, optimized design.

Keep icons simple and iconic

As the operating systems possess icons that increase to large sizes (512px by 512px is more prominent for an icon), the desire to be extraordinarily illustrative with your icon designs increases. Although a level of realism can add interest to an icon design, it shouldn't displace its ability to function positively and effectively.

Utilize a limited perspective

The series of perspectives in your icon design set should work seamlessly together. If you have icons being viewed straight ahead, then stay with that. If you put one at a certain angle, ensure all the other icons function that way. Imagine that a camera is being placed from an excellent viewing point and looking at all other objects from the same perspective. This helps in upholding consistency in your icon designs.

Two attributes of amazing icon design

Icons that are correctly designed display a methodical and intentional approach to the three key attributes that constitute any icon design: aesthetic unity, form, and recognition. When designing a new icon set, it is essential you consider these attributes in a repetitive approach, beginning with the general (form) before moving to the specific (recognizability). It doesn’t matter if you’re designing a single icon, these two essential attributes can still be hinted at and extrapolated from a professional single design.

Aesthetic unity

The elements that are being shared in a single icon and throughout an icon set are what is referred to as aesthetic unity. These elements are things such as square or rounded corners, the apparent size of corners (2 pixels, 4 pixels, etc.), limited and standard line weights, the style (filled line, line, flat, or glyph), the color palette, etc. The aesthetic unity of a set is the collection of design elements and choices you iterate all through the set to join it together as a complete cohesive visually.

Recognizability

Recognizability is a result of an icon’s essence or what makes an icon extraordinary. The probability of an icon working depends on how easily the viewer understands the object, notion, or action it portrays. Recognizability also includes displaying the properties that the viewer usually connects with that idea. Furthermore, elements that are spectacular or unanticipated can be included. Bear in mind that recognizability doesn't only refer to the understanding of the object, notion, or action that's being portrayed, but also the identification of your unusual icon set.

Now, we have revealed the basics of how to design beautiful and meaningful icons. If you have an idea for your icon in mind and would like to put it into action, please feel free to reach out. If you are looking for some inspiration, check our latest icon designs on Dribbble.

Kevin Dukkon

Design Lead

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