Getting the most from your app icon design

Cecily Kellogg

We’ve all heard the phrase, “It’s the little things that count.” When designing an exciting new app, of course you want to focus on the big things, like functionality and uniqueness. But what about icon design? Seems obvious enough, yet it’s a facet of app design that’s all too often given scant attention in the rush to get to market. But with 70,000 apps available to iPhone users alone, the difference between success and failure might just hinge on an eye-catching icon. Here we’ll provide a few tips on getting the most from your app icon design.

Avoid the squint factor


Design by Beboale

Scale is everything. App icons on mobile devices range from 94×94 pixels to 120×120 pixels. So as a general rule, avoid words in your design. An icon with typographic elements might look good on a laptop, but on the small screen of a smart phone it loses its impact in a hurry. And when scanning a crowded field for an eye-grabbing icon, mobile users don’t want to read, let alone squint to understand what they’re seeing. So think about the visual elements and nix the verbiage.

Keep it simple


Design by MegaMagiFX

When designing for the small screen of a smart phone, you want an app icon that’s bold and simple enough to grab user attention while still remaining easily identifiable. That means simple colors and bold, easily recognized and reproduced shapes. If your app helps users find local eateries, for example, some element of the design should communicate “food.” Remember that your viewer is scanning from a crowded field, so you’ll need to connect with him or her in seconds.

Don’t be dull


Design by Pixto

Simple doesn’t mean bland. A burst of detail is good, so long as it doesn’t result in clutter. Be judicious. A simple element such as a crown, an eye, a spoon, a wheel or a stylized facial silhouette can be an asset so long as it’s unambiguous. Glints, gradients, highlights and reflections can be your best friends. Using bold colors or interesting color combinations can also help your app stand out in the crowd. Be aware of other icons, especially those of your direct competitors. You’ll want to capitalize on their weaknesses and emphasize your strengths.

Be consistent with your brand


Design by Joekirei

When it comes to icon design, the same cardinal rule applies as in any branding effort: be consistent. That means using tones and elements that conform to your larger brand logo and identity. Any viewer anywhere on any screen should be able to see your colorscape and start thinking about your brand. You may also want to see how your app icon looks against some commonly used wallpapers to ensure it won’t be drowned out by background colors.

A few final tips…

Take a look at the icons already available on app stores. Knowing the field will help avoid duplication and wasted effort. Also, beware the ”gloss.” Apple offers a gloss format for app icons that many designers feel dulls and flattens the design. If you want the boldness of your design to stand out, opt out of the Apple gloss.

Hopefully, by taking a little time and minding a few simple guidelines, your app icon will be a shining success!

The author

Cecily Kellogg
Cecily Kellogg

Cecily Kellogg became an accidental designer when she worked at a short-handed non-profit and although she now prefers designing with words, the lessons she learned from doing graphic design make her work in content development more well-rounded. She writes about the intersection of family, technology, and social media for Babble Tech and runs her own web content business. She is also known for her raw tone and humor on various social media platforms including her own blog, Uppercase Woman. Cecily lives in the Philadelphia area, is happily married, is mom to a fierce and amazing daughter, and has occasionally been called a bad ass.

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