What is an App Icon?
An app icon is a small picture that represents a mobile application on either Google Play (on androids), the App Store (on iOS devices), or on users’ mobile device after installation.
A great icon is considered by many designers to be one that looks effortlessly stunning on a graphic interface. It is also one that co-exists with other app icons on a home screen in an aesthetically pleasing way. However, because the process of app icon design takes a little bit of a different approach compared to logo or label design, people often end up making the same common mistakes.
To help you avoid them, we’ll be laying out all the main principles of app icon design as well as the most important tips that any graphic designer should definitely follow. By applying them, you could be on your way to creating the best app icon for your company’s mobile application!
1) Make your app icon recognizable
One of the most necessary things you need to do when designing icons for apps is to make them recognizable. If your design is unrecognizable, your application could risk being ignored on Google Play and the App store, and this would be counteractive to your goal in getting people to download it.
Hence, your aim should be to make your design look as simple and unique as possible. Incorporate any element that is different from all your competitors and use only one or two colors to help it stand out even more. Whichever your main element is, make sure that it is large enough for people to notice it as well. If you have a specific letter or logomark that you want to use in the design, then you may also enlarge its size to increase its recognizability. Take a look at Vimeo and Tumblr’s app icons for example:
The two apps make use of a single letter that is representative of their brand’s unique visuals. The letter is also written in the same font as their logos and is large enough so that users can instantly recognize that the mobile app belongs to these websites.
Another point that you should take note of is that you should also refrain from using actual photos within your app icon design. While you may think that the more realistic your app icon looks, the better, it typically doesn’t work this way. Although you can definitely use photorealistic designs (like the camera app icon shown below), actual realistic photos used for icons, such as those taken from your camera, are actually frowned upon for app icon designs.
2) Keep it simple
Another important principle of app icon design that goes hand-in-hand with the point above is to create a simple design. Keeping it simple will ultimately allow your app icon to pop-up and catch the attention of users scrolling through their screens. If you add too many unnecessary details to it, this could potentially diminish the recognizability aspect of your design.
In essence, the key to app icon design is that it should be simple and comprehensible to any user in the world. To achieve this, you should stick to a single element and pair it up with a clear and simple colored background if possible.
For instance, Facebook’s app icon consists of just their logomark, which is the letter “F” on a blue background. Their messenger app also only consists of a basic blue chat bubble with a white lightning bolt in the center. This bubble is placed on a plain white background which helps increase the contrast within the design.
While you do not always have to limit yourself to just one color, a good rule of thumb for app icons is to pick two to three colors max. Most apps often use two colors at most, with one of the exceptions being Instagram’s most recent app icon that has a gradient. Once you add too many colors, it can create visual clutter and this will make your app icon appear less bold and recognizable.
Furthermore, make sure not to use any texts within your design. That’s what you have the name of your app for! If you would like to use text, it is highly recommended that you stick to one letter that represents your brand, just like the “V” for Vimeo and lowercase “T” for the Tumblr app icons shown earlier.
3) App icon should look great in multiple sizes
App icons are originally 120 x 120 pixels in size. However, because you’ll most likely be including the same app icon on many of your company’s marketing materials, you want to make sure that the design looks just as great and professional in multiple sizes.
For example, if you want to promote your app icon on a flyer, brochure, business card, website, or even a billboard, this will all require a different sized icon. Some will be quite small in size compared to the original app icon, while others will be extremely large (in the case of a billboard). By testing your app icon design in various sizes beforehand, this can help save a lot of time and effort in correcting them later on.
4) Make it platform-specific (iOS/Android)
Before you come up with the design for your app icon, you must first do your research on the specific guidelines of the OS manufacturer (Android or iOS). Otherwise, your app icon may end up not functioning properly or looking the way you want it to look. By following these guidelines, you will also be able to get your app icon approved faster.
Therefore, if you are working on an app icon design for an Android, you should check out the Android Material Design guide on their official website (also be sure to check out the icon grid examples for Photoshop). This guide covers all the details regarding the style, animation, components, patterns, layout, usability, as well as reference materials for Android app icon design.
For iOS apps, (a.k.a those that work on Apple devices), you should check out the iOS human interface guidelines. This guide reveals the general principles and recommended tips for iOS app icon design.
5) Test app icon with various backgrounds
On either Google Play or the App store, your app icon will be shown on either white or light grey background. However, as users are able to personalize their home screen wallpapers and many of them like to do so, your app icon needs to similarly stand out and look good on all kinds of backgrounds. Hence, be sure to test it on all popular colored backgrounds, whether dark, light, or gradient.
Main Aspects You Should Focus On
App icon design all boils down to 3 main aspects that you should focus on. This includes:
1) Icon Scalability
As mentioned earlier, you’ll most likely be promoting your app on various marketing materials, either now or in the near future. To ensure that this app icon design looks equally good on both small and large marketing materials, try testing your design out in various sizes to see what it would look like, for example, on a large poster or on a tiny business card, before calling it your final design.
To strengthen your branding, consistency in your visuals will be crucial, and this should also be transferred your app icon design. The main design elements that you use in your brand’s visual identity, such as your logo, packaging or web design, should also be apparent on your app icon so that users instantly recognize your business.
Can you imagine a Facebook app with a completely different color and font type? Facebook decided to use the “F” from their logo, in the same exact font and the same blue shade in their app icon. By doing this, people will automatically recognize that the app belongs to facebook. The same goes for the app icons of Uber and Netflix. They’ve all used the most prominent elements of their visual branding as the main focal point of their app icon.
With that being said, make sure you closely follow your brand style guide.
At the end of the day, we can’t ignore the fact that most users’ decision to download apps is based off how the icons look. The app icon gives users the very first impression of the app, and their opinions of whether or not the app is good are judged from its design.
While incorporating your brand’s visuals can definitely help increase the recognizability of your app icon, do not forget to also make your design reflective of the app’s usability so that users do not get confused with what your app is supposed to be used for. Within a single look, users should instantly be able to tell the main purpose of your app.
For example, Viber is an app that is mainly used for free international calls, hence why the designer decided to place a phone symbol in the center of a purple messaging bubble in the app icon. On the other hand, music apps tend to go with musical notes, and photo editing apps tend to go with the outline or image of a camera.
Lastly, while you should design an app icon that looks great when placed alongside other apps, you should also aim to make it stand out from the rest. A unique app icon will make it easier for users to notice it amongst a large crowd of app icons either on Google Play, the App store, or on their home screens.
If you already have a very strong and established visual identity for your business, be sure to use that to your advantage when designing your app icon. Using your main brand colors and iconic logomark is one way that many companies tend to design their app icons as it helps catch the attention of users. However, if you are creating a completely new app, or if your entire business is based on it, you can search up the app icons of your competitors to see how you can make yours different from that.