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How To Design An App Icon When The Logo’s Not Enough

App icon design tips and advice - illustration by Kyra

What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think about a particular app? Chances are, it’s the icon. And it’s certainly the first thing a user notices when deciding what app to install — similar to studying the supermarket shelves. A good custom app icon design is a sure way to support a brand, promote the app, make it memorable and differentiate it from the variety of other apps, make people relate to the app, and it’s vital for the App Store and Google Play. Seems like too much for such a small element.
An icon is a crafted design element users interact with every time they use an app, so it deserves special attention. And there are tips and practices to help you design a good icon for an app.

What is an app icon and why apps need it

An app icon is a small piece of unique graphics acting as a symbol for an app, that you can see in app stores, on home screens and menus, etc. But is it the same as the logo?
Back in the day, creating icons for an application was a separate branch of the design industry. In the era of skeuomorphism, each icon was a work of art and everyone tried to show off as best they could. Then the flat design came along with full-fledged integrated branding for apps including logos, brand books, promotional websites, illustrations, and icons. So the application icon has become part of the branding and ceased to be something unique. However, it doesn’t make the icon identical to the logo, though both of them are parts of the app’s visual identity. 
Last year we’ve made an article on the concept of variable logos and their role in modern branding. Variable design is about the refusal of clinging to one particular style in favor of being relevant to the user and building a stronger connection. The disambiguation between the concepts of the app’s logo and its icon is one of the symptoms of this current trend. Still, an icon is not equated to a logo.
The thing is, a logo is designed to be present on all marketing materials from the website to flyers, whereas an icon is made for specific purposes and places mentioned above. They are both parts of branding, but different in the way you create them and use afterward, so the reasons for their success are also different. A logo represents the brand. An icon represents a particular app. 
The icon design is important because it:

  • promotes a brand
  • increases downloads
  • helps retain users.

A large portion of an app’s conversion rate is tied to its UI and UX design. A part of it is an icon ability to make it memorable and recognizable thus increasing conversion rate. An icon helps a user better understand the purpose of an app beforehand and relate to it. Roman Rudnik in his article describes 10 app icon design case studies with amazing results — sometimes a new icon design was able to double the app download rates.

App icon design best practices

An icon for the VITAE project by Shakuro

The following tips will help you make an amazing and effective app icon for iOS and Android that catches the eye.

Mobile app icon design best practices

Strive for memorability and uniqueness, analyze your competitors

Designing an app icon, keep in mind that its main objective is to be recognizable and memorable. You probably remember the hilarious mobile gaming trend demonstrating the power of an angry guy yelling at something just out of frame, prevalent in mobile strategy gaming several years ago. 

Looking at today’s app stores, the screaming dudes are there all right, just not so many of them.
With virtually millions of apps available for Apple and Android, the hardest thing is to make something unique without overcomplicating it. The good idea is to analyze the icons of your competitors and try to go in a slightly different direction. 
There’s nothing wrong with attempting to understand your competitors’ success, look for inspiration, and maybe copy some of their good decisions, but just as the app is different from all others, so its icon should be different. When you craft an icon, you are immersed in the process and it seems one-of-a-kind. Whereas users get dozens or even hundreds of icons before them. That is why they should be able to quickly identify which one is yours. 
Make the competitor analysis but don’t overdo it so your app icon doesn’t look like a carbon copy. Find out what looks attractive to your target audience and build on it.

Mobile app icon design

tree wallpaper app icon concept by Valeria Vanhelieva

Take business values and branding into account

An app should follow the overall branding for users to easily recognize it on all platforms and environments.
When thinking about forms and colors pick those that go along with the general branding and are right in terms of color psychology.

Designing an app logo

An icon for the Meet Select app designed by Shakuro

Stick to minimalism

Follow the rules of design and make your app icon simple and beautiful to the target audience. Remember the point about it being recognizable? The complicated design makes it less so. A design that is too intricate makes an icon and app itself look outdated and in turn, suspicious, low-quality, and not worth attention, so it gets easily ignored. Remove anything that can be removed without sacrificing quality and business goals.
Make several design variations and show them to the target audience to find out what stays with them. Deconstruct the designs of your competitors and the ones done by the big corporation. It will show you the way.
As time passes, creative agencies are moving from the design intricacies that once showed the technical superiority of the product during the technological race to the simple forms that have a calming effect in the growing chaos.

Custom app icon design

Video Icon by Ashton Snow

Follow the app stores guidelines

When designing an icon, follow app icon design requirements provided by the app stores. Both the App Store and the Google Play Store have very specific guidelines concerning the icon design down to style specifications.
The basic requirement is to follow the guidelines on app icon dimensions, but you’ll benefit from paying attention to all the specs. It’s hard to remember every single point, so here are the links:

Design with scalability in mind

You’ll need an icon for different places so its scalability is one more thing to consider. Think about all its sizes and formats. This is to ensure that an icon looks equally good on any device because icons are not only present in app stores and home screens, but also in sub-menus where they are even smaller, and on wearable devices interfaces.
Here’s where minimalism also plays its role. An elaborate design won’t look just as good as the simple one when cramped into a small square. The idea is for it to retain its distinct form in various sizes and remain legible in all environments. Try out your design in various sizes and formats to see whether it meets the requirements.

App icon design dimensions

App Icon for Whale by Himanshu Sharma

Focus on consistency and conveying the app’s message

A perfect icon is not only a part of the branding system, but it’s also the extension of an app itself. It should be seamlessly woven into the user experience and become its starting and finishing points. It’s especially important in the game app icon design where it’s not enough to just make an icon from a logo. A good icon is made in the style and colors of a game and shows what it’s about and speaks the same language. An app and its icon should support each other. Ideally, an icon should display an app’s functions. So it makes sense to make an icon in the same visual style as an app to meet the users’ expectations.
When conveying the app’s purpose, avoid using words on icons. “Show, don’t tell”. An icon is a visual representation of an app, it doesn’t need words, they will only overload it and act as white noise. What’s more, text elements look awful and harder to read in small-size icons. The exception might be one or two letters of a brand’s name, like in the case of “in” of the LinkedIn app icon. 

How to design an app icon

Voodoo Mambo Game Icon by murat kalkavan

Bonus: Trends in app icon design

Several years ago, people were posing questions about why there are so many apps with white icons. Today the recent trends seem to try to add some depth to the flat design.

  • Flat icons with some dynamic

Flat design is about sophistication and aesthetics of minimalism and the use of simple forms. Adding dynamic motives brings in some depth and makes the illustration feel more energetic.

App icon design trends - TikTok

The TikTok app icon doesn’t approach the effect of movement head-on but achieves it nonetheless.

  • Gradients

With the help of gradients, you are able to create completely new color schemes and add volume to objects, which creates a sort of 3D effect.

App icon design trends - gradient

Feather Icon by Nikita Sharma

  • Letterpressed design

The decision to give depth to any element may be justified, but you need to use embossing and letterpress techniques in the app icon design with caution so that it doesn’t look outdated.

App icon design trends - letterpressed

Alphabet: letter Y by Alex Tass.
The letterpressed effect can be achieved not only by using the neomorphic techniques that aren’t considered practical by many designers but simply with the help of colors.

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Written by Kate Shokurova

May 05, 2020

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