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Design Guide to Create Exceptional App Icon

It will not be an overstatement if we say that icons are the faces of the apps hence deserve to be unique enough to stand out amongst the rest.

Addressing the elephant in the room first, app icons are paramount to drawing the audience towards your brand. There goes an in-depth brainstorming behind the app icon designing to make sure it drives the highest number of downloads. The icon design stage is critical for several reasons but mostly because it illustrates the brand’s essence. If it fails to depict what the app is about, the chances are that it will go unnoticed by the majority. Not only to attract new ones, but the icon must also be distinguishable enough to get recognized by the former users. 

In this article, we will be discussing the steps to designing a highly efficient app icon, along with some key design tips. You will find a number of Do’s and Don’ts t guide you throughout the process.  

Everything You Need to Know About App Icons 

Before jumping on to the design understanding of the app icons, it is important to clear an application icon’s core concept. They are tiny design elements to represent your app in any app store, home screen, while receiving a relevant notification, or inside the app setting section. These small badges can be based on your brand logo or on some captivating visual elements that convey your brand’s theme across the board. 

The fundamental use of the app icons is to help identify the app/brand in addition to its profound use in marketing. 

Some Designs Standards for App Icons

The app icon design should be of such a caliber that it captivates the viewer to follow the provided call to action. Even though it is tiny in size, an application icon holds the complete crux of the application’s functionality. It is similar to projecting the first impression of your brand. Here are some key elements to consider that will guarantee that your app icon is satisfying all the standards of excellent marketing. 

App icon scalability 

There are a number of instances where application icons are used without us taking any notice, this includes the app stores, the home screen of the user, setting section, notification panel, search results, lock screen, and more. It is imperial that the app icon design is visible in all forms without being overcrowded. Often appearing inside the notifications panel, the size is even reduced to fit all the contents. If the app is accessed on larger screens, like tablets/iPads, laptops, or TV screens, it is bound to be enlarged, and a good app icon design is the one that does not lose its richness with an increased number of pixels on the screen. 

Having a lot of small elements inside your application icon might also be a contributing factor in reducing the scalability as they can strain the eyes of the viewer when viewed in the smaller size, and when the icon is enlarged, these small elements are the first to get pixelated in the process. 

Another factor that needs to be kept in focus is that most of the users have switched to ‘Dark Mode’ immediately after the feature was released. Make sure that your app icon is vibrant enough to be visible on all the backgrounds, especially in the dark mode. 

Focus on making your designs timeless so that it doesn’t run out of style too soon. Avoid following trends and adding versatile elements, so when you need to update your design, you just have to make a few tweaks and some color scheme changes. Changing the central elements of your app icon can lower the download ratio. 

Easily recognizable icon design 

Recognizability is probably the most significant aspect of mobile app icons. During the design process, make sure that you choose the colors, shapes, fonts, and other visuals to stay in the long run. With a consistent design, you increase the chances of being recognized on a large scale. Refrain from making the design too basic that you end up missing to add some character to it. This might increase the visibility of the app icon, but it will not help make the icon catchy because people tend to remember the things that draw their attention.

Visualize the persona of an ideal user of the app. You can do this by writing down the features and main functions of the app on a piece of paper. Keep that piece of paper in front of you when you start with design brainstorming. Think about how you can connect with the ideal user what design aesthetics will work the best. However, do not forget the brand color palette in the process. Try to create a moment of interest with your app icon design, as it is the best technique to get hooked in a viewer’s mind. That interesting element makes your icon recognizable for the users when they come back as well. 

Maintain brand consistency within the icon 

Start by thinking about how many apps are already in the market relevant to your niche and what design aesthetic they are following. You will find some great examples of visually representing the app features, and you have to include that thing in your icon as well. This can be an overwhelming task if one starts without understanding the flow. 

Initiate by writing all the functionality of your app separately in one-word forms. Add some visual aspects (be it shape, color, font, etc.) for all those words. Make sure you have listed the prime features of the app, not the indirect or secondary ones. Now try merging the individual design aspects into one form. This might give you more than one result, and you have to keep working around these essential elements until you get a design that reflects your brand. 

Take as long as necessary before finalizing the design because once the design is finished, you should be satisfied enough to commit to it for a longer time. Don’t make a design based on trending or is prone to change in the future for your brand. Stick to basic elements that define your brand. Keep in check that the look of the application icon justifies the user’s experience of the app and the other way around.  

The ideal icon size and format 

As discussed previously, the app icon has diverse uses; hence it is crucial to work with a design that equally complements all the sizes. This eliminates the idea of creating multiple designs for each size as the single one justifies all the sizes with an uncompromised appearance. 

A large number of Android devices use app icons size from any of the multiples 96✕96, 72✕72, 48✕48, or 36✕36. However, the standard recommendation is 864✕864 pixels to improve scalability. For iPhone, the standard recommended size for application icon is 1024✕1024 pixels. For both OS, the size can be increased or decreased based on the device that is being operated. 

The format needs to be PNG at all costs for both Android as well as iPhone application icons. JPG/JPEG or any other format is not usable. Opt for software or online tools that allow you to export your icons in PNG format.  

Steps for Design Prep 

Research the existing designs in the market 

This ought to be the first and the most significant step of all. Before diving into the details, you must know that the number of total apps on the Apple app store is nearly 2 million, whereas, on the Google play store, the number exceeds 2.8 Million. This is to give you a rough idea that whatever is your app’s niche, there are going to be hundreds of other relevant apps already. 

Begin checking the trending apps in your niche and seeing different variations of popular app icon designs for inspiration. See what instances catch your attention, what colors reflect their app aesthetics, and which elements crowd the icon design. Finally, note down the features that you like and dislike about those app icons and critically analyze from the perspective of your ideal user persona of the app.  

This will give you a rough idea of what features you want to add and what elements you should steer away from. You will end up with a list of Dos and Don’ts personalized with respect to your brand and business. Now you have a clean canvas, start implementing the ideas with a free hand. You don’t need to finalize the design just yet. Keep adding, removing, and playing around with different designs but remember to have a solid reason for adding every element.    

Keep app store recommendations in check 

The next step will be to check all the app stores’ recommendations to make your app available for download. That is where user and application icon interaction takes place for the first time. You are at liberty to infuse your creativity in the app icon design as it suits you or your brand but double-check that you are abiding by the guidelines and rules provided by both Android and iOS app stores. Google Play Store and Apple App Store have individually released their specific guidelines for sizing, color scheme, fonts, type, and testing. These guidelines make sure you take time and embed the design elements that benefit your app marketing. If your app icons design is according to those guidelines, chances are your app will appear in the topmost search results. 

Pick a flexible software design tool

You should opt for design software for app icons based on your situation and expertise. Consult a design expert friend. If you have one, test the software if there is an option to export the design in PNG. Do this with a sample so you don’t end up wasting hours designing an app icon and then realizing that you can not export the PNG format. 

There are a number of software tools that you can use for designing a mobile app icon, like Adobe Illustrator and Adobe Photoshop, but these require a certain level of training and skills. However, there are some tools with easy-to-navigate and straightforward UI. There is no need for high-level expertise to design with these tools as they are pretty self-explanatory drag and drop. You can find a lot online, but check if they offer PNG format export in their free version. You can also go for the paid version if you want. 

If you have a creative designer friend or someone with great design skills, go ahead and get your mobile application icon designed from them, but if you have the creative mindset and you think you can design one but lack software skills, you can create some designs and provide the designer for inspiration. The other option is to spare some time, choose an online drag and drop tool as those are easier to learn, and start designing yourself. The idea is that the lack of design tool knowledge must not limit creativity.  

App Icon Design Essentials

This section is not one of the steps but a list of important reminders throughout the design process. So much thought process goes behind the app icons that it sometimes gets overwhelming for the designer’s creative thinking. The following key points are to make sure that the design flow runs smoothly. Don’t forget to take notes, and there are some interesting brainstorming ideas for you along the process.    

Avoid cramming too many design elements 

The highest level of damage that an over-crowded application icon design can do is to send the wrong message about the app’s functionality. Too many design elements send out multiple messages or confuse the actual message in the process. If there’s one thing that you should understand about app icon design, it is to keep your brand message unequivocal. Other elements can be added to support the message, so it does not appear too much for the eyes. 

The app icons are small and smaller in size, and there is no point stuffing them with too much as that is not going to serve you any purpose. This will only end up making the icons lose their professional touch. The great way to understand the threshold of the elements to be included in the design is to visualize the icon in the tiniest possible size that will display, that is, inside a notification panel. The parts that appear the clearest of all in this size are the ones you should keep and dump the rest. If you think this step will influence your actual design, that is the sign that you have not correctly emphasized the actual brand message. If you can easily discard the cramped elements in your design with some position change, then your design is close to what your mobile application icon should have looked like in the first place. 

Whatever the scenario you end up with, at this point, you will have a good idea about what modifications need to be incorporated.  

Opt for a wise color scheme 

Colors are not limited to any specific purpose, gender, age, or culture. However, colors do carry meaning and essence to represent different aesthetics and vibes. Like fragrances, colors do possess the power to make the viewer recall certain events, objects, scenes, and vibes; hence, clever colors can jazz up your app icon. 

You should know a few things while choosing the color scheme for your app icon. The first and the most important one is that if you have a brand and logo, the icon colors, fonts and shapes must be in accordance with that. If you don’t have an already established brand, the icon ought to reflect the inside UI/UX design of the app screens to match the vibe that the user is going to find inside. Pick vibrant colors, use white, or some other colors to make the design pop even in the dark mode. People usually have different wallpaper settings on their home and lock screens so be sure to test on different backgrounds that the colors of your icon are visible enough. 

If you are working with two or more colors, double-check that the contrast is well-defined. If you’re starting fresh with a clean canvas, here are examples of choosing your color palette. An app related to food, grocery, or food delivery, can have an icon with an orange or red color scheme as these colors usually represent food/edibles. The same color psychology is adopted by restaurants as well. The tones and shades, however, depend on the overall design.

Similarly, apps related to budgeting or money management can use greens, olives, or even blues with a slight contrast with shades of yellow and golden. Greens remind of Dollar bills, and golden represent coins. Another example can be games or icons related to women’s fashion apps, unless it is not a brand, can opt for a pastel color scheme and add darker colors for contrast like red.   

Stay aligned with brand style guide 

It is essential to design the app icon during the app development process. As the logo is designed to match with a website, app, or other elements of the brand’s online presence, the icon should also be considered one of those elements. Do not start designing it after you’re done with your app, and do it during the process as it is equally important. This is the best way to stay aligned with your brand style guide.  

Follow your brand design in a color palette, theme, and overall vibe. No matter which type of icon you choose, character-based, brand logo-based, function-based, or features-based. This is so important because it gives clarity in delivering the brand message. The worst thing you can do to your brand is to give the wrong, unclear, and multiple messages of your brand’s vision. 

For instance, if your app is based on designing and delivering home decor items, an overly animated app icon or including any animated characters will send out a message that this app is probably a game for decor design. Imagine the number of people who will scroll through the app without reading the description. This will directly influence your business and sales rate, which a bummer for any brand. Not only that, this will drive in the wrong audience. People who are interested in playing the game will end up on your store, which is indeed a wrong marketing move. 

Using words is a bad idea 

Words do not make sense inside a tiny app icon, and they are not visible enough to be read; hence, there is no int adding words. Even if your brand logo is based on a word, the app stores’ guidelines do not recommend adding words. 

There are many examples for this instance, such as Facebook and Instagram. Both are trending apps; however, their mobile app icon is not based on that complete word, unlike their logo. Despite of that, their icon is fully relevant to their inside app theme. This consistency shows that the icons are professional, hence increasing overall credibility. Instagram also has some relevant apps like collage maker. Those apps also follow a similar ap icon theme and color scheme. Using a complete brand name might not be an ideal situation. However, using brand name initials is definitely in. You can use the first letter or initials of the brand name but make sure not to use not more than 3 letters as it will make the app crowded again.   

As discussed in the previous sections, your mobile application icon’s ideal design should be the one that is visible from a notification panel, and adding words will not satisfy that. Words are extremely hard to read in that little space. Hence, making your app icon look highly unprofessional. 

Never settle for a photo icon

Using a photo for the app icon is the worst idea. There is nothing classy about using a random picture as your mobile app icon, and it might subtract the time that will be consumed in designing an icon but it’s not worth it. 

It is tough to get the picture right that oo professional because it can easily get pixelated in the process. As per the previous discussion, app icons must be scalable, so in order to do that, using pictures is a big no. A badly pixelate image inside the app icon makes it seem fake benefitting other tens of apps of similar niche to stand out. App icons with images are easily ignored, which hits their download rate and overall business performance.   

Don’t shy away from bold and distinctive icon design

The first and the essential purpose of icon design is to compel the viewer to pause and click on the app icon, read the description and download it. Therefore, the icons must be highly attractive and creative. There are many guidelines for app icon designs, and this can be overwhelming at times and crush the creative ideas in the designer’s mind, and this leads to the lack of inspiration. 

Beware before going down that road. It is your app and your brand. To overcome this situation, start with a fresh mind and design multiple samples. Add all the elements you want to include in your final design and write the core purpose of each element simultaneously on the paper. This will enable you to visualize all the features. With the description written alongside each feature, you will separate the necessary elements to keep from the rest. It creates a balance between design and the message. 

Once you are done with the samples, visualize each of them according to the guidelines. See which ones are acceptable according to the app store guidelines. If you still end up having multiple designs at this point, consult someone else. A fresh pair of eyes is always better to make a decision. Consult a designer friend or a family member for an honest and critical review of the icon design. 

Feel free to add unique shapes 

The icons must be unique, and what better way to achieve them than by adding some unique shapes. There is a high probability that you end up with a design that stands out, and your app icon will be on point with an accurate color scheme. This technique will appeal to you if you enjoy doodling in your free time. You can make random shapes in general, but a better idea would be to doodle around your brand initials. Make the doodles visible and readable enough to align with your brand colors. 

However, adding abstract shapes is a great way to add uniqueness to the mobile app icons. This makes the design unique enough to stay in the viewer’s mind. Adding different shades, tones, and contrasting elements can also make the designs pop.

Start by doodling on paper and making random shapes that seem appealing to the eyes. Try scratching the brand or app name initials and see if it works for you. The random shapes increase the chances of your app icon to turn out distinctive, whereas, with the name initials, the chances are less. The initials are based on alphabets, and there are only so many ways you can doodle an alphabet out. However, a range of visually appealing icons can be pulled out with color and unique typography.    

Design guide in a Nutshell 

To summarize it all, app icons are tiny in size and reduced to even tinier sizes to fit into different UIs like application stores, home screens, lock screens, notification bars, and many more. It is of utmost importance to keep the design elements easily visible from those small sizes. Make sure you are targeting the right audience with your designs. Do not opt for themes that can drive the wrong audience. Your brand’s clear and single-toned message should be your end goal for the icon design. 

Choose vibrant colors that pop on all backgrounds, even in the dark mode, and the best way to do this is to opt for high contrast colors. Avoid adding too many trends as those design aesthetics fade away with time. On the contrary, include design elements that are versatile and timeless. Those designs will last you for decades, and you will be able to make tweaks here and there to jazz up the look accordingly. 

Read and understand the guideline of the platform where you want to upload your app. Make multiple samples, which you are satisfied with, and then try uploading each one of those to check which one gets approved and proves to be the best option. 

This is your brand and your design. Try adding some character and a moment of interest to it so you can end up grabbing a maximum number of downloads.  

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