An app icon is a small, static image that contains visual information about your brand and product. This tiny design element represents your mobile app in the marketplace.
The icon is often the very first contact that your target audience has with your product. In fact, it’s the face of the product. Just like displaying a product in a shop window, if this first exposure is not eye-catching, then all of your app's unique and useful features will go unused.
That is why I am now inviting you to get better acquainted with the nuances and trends of modern app icon design. I will also give you specific recommendations and step-by-step instructions for creating your own app icon.
The main visual trend in icon design is simplicity, because this leads to recognizability. But it’s also important to remember that simplicity is only good when it isn’t boring. Look at any well-known brand and you will notice that it mostly uses just one or two elements and colors.
A simple design also has practical benefits in other areas. For example, it makes it easier for a designer to maintain clarity and consistency in different sizes. That translates to better scalability, which I will discuss in more detail below.
This aspect is crucial because it guarantees that your brand will be quickly recognized and adapted to. Therefore, make sure that you choose elements, colors, and fonts that you’re not going to want to change for a long time, because a consistent, stable visual increases recognition.
On one hand, your design should be simple, but on the other hand, it must also embody an idea, emotion, or character in order to be recognizable and memorable. To do this effectively, you will need to be well-acquainted with the portrait of your target audience to know what will pique their interest.
Uniqueness is something everyone is after, but in practice, it’s difficult to implement. Every business wants to stand out from the competition. What makes it challenging is that results not only depend on your own actions and creativity, but also on those of your competitors, and that factor is unpredictable.
Nevertheless, you should still strive to create a unique design. There are a few helpful things to keep in mind.
It’s best to create a design that carries some kind of meaning or idea, thus creating an emotional reaction that can help you stand out from the crowd.
Also, observe what others in your niche are doing and try a different approach or idea. Color is a crucial element in any concept; often all you have to do to stand out is change a single color.
This is one of the most important aspects of icon design. Since your icon will be displayed in various places in different sizes, it should retain its readability and visual perception during these changes.
If the icon is overloaded with elements, then it will have poor scalability. Creating an icon that scales well in a variety of settings is a basic skill and the mark of a good designer.
If you have a rendering of an icon that falls short in scalability, then the problem is either in the icon’s original concept, or in the rendering itself and is a result of bad design work.
Good scalability starts at the concept stage. Don’t spread yourself too thin by trying to capture anything and everything. Prioritize. Choose just one object that reflects your idea and on which you will base your icon.
When it comes to elements of icon style and design, color is key. For example, bright colors can certainly help you stand out and even increase user engagement.
When working on an icon, it doesn't hurt to make sure it looks good and “pops” on various backgrounds. This is important because users will have different wallpapers on their devices.
At the concept level, your colors should, of course, correspond to your niche and industry, as well as set you apart from your competitors.
The foremost app stores in the world are, of course, Apple’s App Store and Google Play. These marketplaces have clear guidelines and best practices for how your icon should look. So the logical first step would be to use them right from the get-go.
Following these guidelines will help promote your app. If your icon’s design follows the guidelines, then it will be easier for your app to climb to the top in the search results.
In addition to general recommendations, Google also launched a design language called, “Material Design”, which also has its own extensive guidelines. Apple, in turn, released similar recommendations for iOS called, “Human Interface Guidelines”.
Based on the modern design trends discussed above, the following recommendations should be taken into account when designing an app icon.
Develop visuals in such a way that they look equally good on different platforms. This will increase your product recognition, and therefore, downloads.
Use the same images and colors for all icons as you adapt them to the technical requirements of a particular platform.
Graphic images are better than photos and text. Photos contain a lot of detail and look bad in small sizes. The same goes for text elements, which can be hard to read and make the visual look cluttered.
If an app’s function can immediately be determined by its icon, then that is a huge plus for the audience. This is especially true for simple functional apps like flashlights, calendars, weather apps, notepads and more. There are plenty of examples of these types of apps and basically all of them clearly show the app’s functionality in one way or another.
This is also very important for gaming apps, since their icons should represent the game as a whole. That’s why icons for game apps often visually indicate their functionality.
It is always best to make the icon square without margins. The majority of platforms use a mask with automatic angle adjustment for the sake of uniformity and visual aesthetics. For example, watchOS automatically applies a round border.
You can also use pre-made templates, which can help create an app icon for any platform.
As mentioned earlier, an app icon can be displayed on various platforms and resources. Therefore, it is very important that you create a design that is optimally suited to different sizes, formats, and requirements. Creating a different design for every size would greatly diminish brand and product recognition.
The following icon sizes are common on most Android devices: 96*96, 48*48, 36*36. However, the standard for this operating system is 864*864 pixels for ease of scalability.
For iPhone, the standard recommendation is 1024*1024. The optimal format for all operating systems is PNG.
So, we’ve covered what you should pay attention to and what points to consider when designing an app icon. Now let’s find out what specific steps the development process consists of.
It is often tempting to skip this preparatory part of the work. But you need to understand that it is very important. This is the step in the process that can help you avoid a conceptual dead end or keep you from creating an unoriginal idea and design.
At this stage, there are two points to analyze:
For the first point, the main question to ask yourself at the beginning stages of designing your icon is: What does my product do and how can I capture that in one image?
To appreciate how important the second point is, it is worth noting that the total number of apps in Apple’s App Store is about 2 million, while Google Play has over 2.8 million.
So, no matter what niche you choose for your application, there are probably hundreds of other apps similar to yours.
Examine the most popular apps in your niche. Consider what they present in terms of design, color, and aesthetics. Identify and select some successful solutions as well as aspects that can be corrected and improved. This kind of monitoring will give you a clear vision of what to implement for your own app.
Once you have an idea for an icon, it’s best to do a freehand sketch first. As much as you might like to skip this seemingly insignificant step and go straight to working with a design tool or writing a technical task for the designer - don’t.
A freehand sketch can save you a lot of unnecessary work and will allow you to get a rough idea of what it would look like. Depending on the results of your sketch, you can choose to scrap the idea and move on or make some adjustments until you are satisfied. Not only will this approach save you time, but also money.
To implement a design, you can either contact a specialist or do it yourself. The first option is pretty straight-forward. You’ll need to find a suitable specialist and create a technical task for them.
If you decide to try your own hand, then you’ll need to choose an application icon design software that matches your experience and skills. Read reviews or consult with designers.
Whichever program you choose, make sure it has the ability to export images to PNG format.
There are classic design tools that you can use like Adobe Illustrator or Adobe Photoshop.
Even though these tools aren’t difficult to use, they still require certain skills. However, there are many free tutorials online for you to learn from.
So, after you have settled on an idea, tools, and made a sketch, you can proceed directly to designing your icon.
The actual steps involved in rendering the icon will depend on what program you’re working with and how much experience you have with it, so this stage is difficult to describe step-by-step.
The most important advice is to do several variations of your design. Make changes and adjustments until you are satisfied with the result and have fully captured your concept.
So now you have a basic understanding of what you need to get started on your app icon. If you follow all of these guidelines, you will soon be able to create unique, beautiful icons for your product. Don’t forget that standards and trends are constantly changing, just like the market itself changes with competitors. Therefore, you should always keep your finger to the wind when it comes to the latest news and updates.
In closing, I would like to remind you once again not to forget that icons are tiny. They shrink to even smaller sizes on different user interfaces, so keep your focus on creating a clear, one-word message for your brand.
With nothing but a visual interface, you can create an app in the shortest possible amount of time, leading to faster profits, and potentially, a faster sale of the app itself.