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.



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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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!

Social Media Icons – Available for free download

Somacro: 27 300DPI Social Media Icons by vervexSomicro: 27 Social Media Icons by vervexSimplito: A free social icon setFree Stained and Faded Social Media Icons Vol 2Socializic, free detailed social media iconsCandy media icons by TIT0Social Icons for WPZoom by umar123Socialize Icon SetBuddycons – Vector Social Media IconsSocial Bookmarks/Networking Icon SetIC Minimal Icon Set by design deckIC Colour Icon Set by design deckFREE Google Plus Icons by survivorczLarge Updated Twitter IconsTwitter Speech Bubble Icons (PSD)Twitter & Dribbble Icons (PSD)custom share buttons by JanSzpakowskiHeart v2: Free Social Iconset in Heart Shape

Google+ Icons – Available for free download

Google+ IconsGoogle+ by Alex PatrascuGoogle Plus (+) Icon Set PNG (dpp)Google Plus(+) Circular Icon Set (PSD + PNG) | Taiyab RajaGoogle+ Logo by Swissendo+plus+ by 1A-DesignGoogle Plus Icons by 1A-DesignGoogle plus icons by IconshockGoogle+ Icon by Aaron MoodyGoogle Plus + Icons Free PSD by JimmybjorkmanSleek Google+ Icon (Plus Free Google+ Icon Set Download) | PSDFanGoogle Connect! by Will FlagelloGoogle+ Icons by ChrisringeisenGoogle+ by Gabe TelepakGoogle Plus by Matthew MartinGoogle Plus Icons by Matt SellersGoogle+ Icon by Sandeep PrabhakaranGoogle+ PSD Icons by Corbin Marc HesseGoogle+ Icons by Daniel SandvikSexy Round Google Plus Icons PSDGoogle Plus(+) Circular Icon SetFree Google Plus Icon | Maze of MindsFree Google Plus IconsGoogle Plus IconGoogle icons

General Icons – Available for free download

iConPack - now with psd by 7UR on deviantARTWeb Icon Set - Mobile Icon Set
Web Icon Set - Cute Blogging Icon Set
Web Icon Set - E-Commerce Icon Set
Music icon pack
micrOS icon pack
app-bits : iPhone Toolbar Icon Set : iPhone Toolbar Icon Set
3D Cartoon Icons Pack by deleket on deviantART
NIXUS Icon Pack: 60 Beautiful Premium Icons (Free) | Tutorial9
55 free user icons pixel by pixel icons
108 Mono Icons: Huge Set of Minimal Icons | Tutorial9
Juicy Fruit icon set. psd included
Web Icon Set - Application Icon Set
Exclusive Payment Method Icon Set for our readers - Speckyboy Design Magazine
Freebie: Incredibly Detailed 3D Icon Set | MediaLoot
Free SEO Icons Set (16 Icons, Private Use Only) - Noupe
Women's Day Icons | Cute Little Factory
Free Apple iPad Icon Set for Your Website Designs
mac 3D icon set by LeMex on deviantART
Soda Pop Caps Icons | Cute Little Factory

This post is brought to you by Printrunner, an online printing company that offers custom label printing.