6 Core Characteristics of Superb Icon Design

Creative design work (or any design work for that matter) is always a struggle. Icons are no exception to the rule, and can give grief to the most professional of designers. To help you with your icon woes, I’ve put together a few core characteristics of superb icons that I’ve encountered and experienced in my time. So, without further ado, here are some characteristics of superb icon design.

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Simplicity

Simplicity is an important part of any design work. This is doubly true for icon design, because you’re given such little space to work in. So, a great way to create a workable, effective icon is to stick with the golden rule of simplicity. Keep it simple, clean, and effective. Evaluate every piece and decide whether it really needs to be there. Would the icon be stronger without it? You’d be surprised how often this happens to be true.

Simplicity is also extremely important for an icon’s ability to match in with other designs. Icons are often featured with other icons, designs, shapes, colors, etc. This means that they need the ability to blend in, so they don’t stand out like a sore thumb. Not to mention too many icons that aren’t simplistic in nature can really clutter up a perfectly good screen. So, stick to simplicity. This will help add clarity and understanding to your icon.

Clarity

All icons should be understandable in a single glance. As a matter of fact, that is the whole point of icons – to be representative of a product or program. So, aim for clarity in your icon design. If it doesn’t have direct representation of the underlying product, in a quick and understandable fashion, it needs to at least spark some recognition of an idea or concept. Clarity helps recognition, which helps memorability, which helps your icon. So, practice clarity for creative icon designs that packs a punch.

Appropriate

Many great creative icons have fallen flat simply for a lack of appropriateness. And I don’t mean in any kind of morality sense (although that too is obviously important), but rather in the target audience and program. No matter how great the icons are, if they’re not appropriate to the subject matter they just don’t work. Always keep in mind your goal while designing your icon, and objectively monitor your success. Sometimes, it’s necessary to start from scratch from a different angle to accomplish your goal and stay true to the task.

Scaling

This is a common issue in icons, due to their sometime use of vectors and their inability to scale down as low as some icons require. It is extremely important that icons look professional in any shape, size, and setting. No matter how amazing the icon is, if elements of it are fuzzy, or it looks bad in a certain scale, it’s not a superb icon.

Consistency

All icons need to be consistent throughout their use of color, lighting, and reflections. If this isn’t done properly, so much quality is lost it’s absurd. It is one of the easiest ways to give your icons that slightly off feeling, which can lead to general unhappiness, both for the designer and client.

This can be surprisingly hard to spot without a trained eye, but as soon as it is fixed everything suddenly looks ten times better. Our subconscious knows if these things aren’t right, and will let our brains know, even if we can’t vocalize why the icon looks so terrible. So, make sure you’ve ironed out the consistency in your icon, or be prepared to have a subpar design work.

Unique

Although it often goes without saying, it bears repeating. Make your icon unique and interesting. While relevance typically your first priority, an interesting and unique icon can be the difference between a workable icon and a superb icon.

Don’t be afraid to experiment. At the end of the day that’s what all design is. Some things work, and some don’t, but you have to be able to follow your instincts and creative senses. Keep your icons simple, clear, appropriate, properly scaled, consistent, and unique and you’re one the right path. Because the majority of all superb icon designs contain these very same core characteristics.

I hope this short list helped you better understand icon design. Are there any key points or further questions you’d like to hear about? Leave a comment below and I’d love to answer!

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