Fundamentals Of Icon Design

Are you a beginner in the world of illustration? Or looking to get some illustration work, but don’t know what you want? This list of the most vital styles of illustration is a good place to start.

May 13, 2024

Table of Contents

Graphic Design Subscription

One-stop for all your designs. Flat monthly price, unlimited requests and revisions.

Icon work might seem like an effortless job, but the truth is it isn’t. The main goal of iconography is to create a visual symbol that will speak a thousand words, and at the same time, it will look simple and eye-catching.

As you can see, this process is challenging but if you learn to better understand the basics of iconography, that knowledge will significantly contribute to creating an effective icon design that will stand the test of time.

In this comprehensive guide, I will share the crucial principles to remember when making icons, different types of user-friendly icons, and how to design an icon set that’s coherent.


What are icons?

Icons are a graphical representation of a function, an application, or a topic that is used within a certain context. For example, icons on a website or an app help users navigate through the app.

Image Source:Jammed

The reason why icons are so popular (and important) is that it is easier for our brains to process icons in comparison to text. 

Instead of having to read every function to understand where we are going or what we are clicking, it is just much easier to see an icon and process the further path. Moreover, digital user interfaces nowadays also use icons to remove potential language barriers and make navigation faster.

For example, a house icon is the international symbol for the home button, and a magnifying glass icon always shows the search option. 

Types/Styles of icons

A style is a form of expression based on the UX designer's perception, and the result is their vision transformed into an icon graphic design.

Designers research a lot when creating icons and then improve over time to develop their unique signature style by infusing different visual elements into current icon trends. There are multiple types of icon styles, such as flat icons, simple shapes, 3D icons, outlined icons, line icons, colorful icons, glyph icons, and so much more.

On a sidenote, ManyPixels offers 7,500+ free icons and illustrations to power up your designs. You can choose from various styles like line icons, line-colored icons, and flat icons.

Flat icons

Microsoft came up with a new visual language called Metro in 2012 when it launched its new operating system, Windows 8. That’s when Microsoft designed flat icons as a response to Apple's skeuomorphic style.

Flat icons quickly soared in popularity for their minimalistic interface and focus on a powerful visual impact using colors and geometric shapes. The goal of flat icons is to eliminate unnecessary details, shadows, and gradients to make them easy to use and understand.

Glyph icons

Glyph icons are precisely shaped monochromatic objects that can incorporate empty spaces to separate different composing fractions. These icons represent an idea but without the standard icon design elements like texturing, shading, and highlighting.

Designed by Andy Ngoa

Glyph icons are popular for their simplicity and effectiveness, these small-size icons allow designers to define the object using a minimalist approach and still achieve effective results. 

Such monochromatic icons are an excellent choice for representing common items in tab bars, sidebars, navigation bars, and toolbars, making a great choice for app icon design.

Material icons

In 2014, Google created its own visual language called Material Design, which created this widely-recognized icon set, material icons. This icon design style was created as a substitute for flat design and skeuomorphism icons.

Designed by David Divinagracia

Google brought back the highlights and shadows (but subtly) and developed a visual layout to seem like the objects were stacked over one another. This icon design is used as a signature look for Google's website and apps.

Hand-drawn icons

If you want to go for something out of the box, then hand-drawn icons are a great choice. The hand-drawn lines give these icons a playful look. The friendly and warm layouts look more humane instead of computerized ones.

Designed by Edita Šiupienienė

To design a hand-drawn icon set, you need graphic design drawing skills. These icons look excellent on luxury and fashion websites.

Essentials for a good icon design

Technology has advanced, but the icons still remain as essential as they were from the beginning. The only thing that has changed is the interface.

Look at icons as your brand ambassador. Unfortunately, many still treat them as an afterthought, and some don’t even think about them at all. If you are trying to sell your idea, you will need cohesive-looking iconography. Here are the fundamental principles of effective icon design that you should be aware of.

Basic forms

When you start designing an icon, the first thing you will do is establish your icon’s form or basic shape to ensure a solid foundation. The basic shapes are circles, squares, ellipses, triangles, and other geometric shapes.


The different shapes send different messages, so you need to ensure that you are not miscommunicating with your audience by using the wrong shape.

  • Circles – A circle symbolizes nature, communication, relationship, and community. Since the circle represents completion, it is easy to correlate them with wholeness, information flow, and health. That being said, it is logical that the desktop application for Google Chrome or an icon for social media or some other communication mobile app icon is designed in a circle shape.
  • Squares – Squares are symbols of stability, strength, and safety. Square shapes can be associated with balance, loyalty, dependability, and formality. Square shapes suggest order and good organization. They are used to represent building structures, grids, and tables, for example. Square shapes are used when designing interfaces for email icons, for instance.
  • Triangles – A triangle is a shape that represents power, action, movement, and science, emphasizing the importance. You have seen that most signposts and icons that signalize directions are triangle-shaped. An excellent example of a triangle in icon design is YouTube or Google drive. Or warning notifications and forwarding actions on smartphones.

Try not to use many freeform designs because they might not appear professional enough. Geometric shapes have more influence and help you create a branded look that you will be recognized for.


Designers usually create a set of icons and rarely just one icon. They represent different subjects and actions, but they are related through visual appeal by having the same theme and aesthetics. 

Each icon functions separately, but even if they are radically different, they need to communicate to your audience that they are associated with one another. 

Use colors, shades, perspectives, and shapes to achieve this. If you decide to use only the front view when designing an icon, the whole set should be designed from the same perspective.

Image Source: Kem Bardly

Aesthetic unity refers to shared elements within a single icon or set, like rounded/square corners, specific corner sizes, consistent line weights, style (flat, line, filled line, or glyph), and color palette. It visually ties a set together as a cohesive whole. 

For example, Kem's dog icons share elements like 2-pixel rounded corners, 2-pixel-thick strokes around faces, and heart-shaped noses.

Also, you must know how to frame the icons properly to achieve a balanced composition. Every icon should consist of visual elements (positive space) and blank parts surrounding the visual elements (negative space).


An icon must be readable and compelling no matter the size they are presented. You should always design the icon in the size that it will be used in, however, sometimes that is not possible, and you need to make your design flexible.

You need to ensure that the design is not changed when the icon is resized a few pixels wider or in a large format. The trick is to start your process in a small vector so that if your elements are readable in smaller sizes, they will be clear in every other size.

How to design an icon/icon set?

Always use a grid

To create a visually compelling icon style, the design must be precise and readable. Even the smallest of details and errors can ruin your hard work. When working with multiple lines and shapes, you need to leave enough space between them; that is why you need to use pixel grids to arrange and balance all the lines and shapes. 

You can use:

  • Square grids – These grids help simplify geometric forms and handle 90-degree angles.
  • Dot grids – Use this grid to provide structure and help create a visually coherent design.
  • Thirty-degree angle grids – These grids are used when creating triangles and irregularly shaped icons to ensure 3D quality.

Alignment is essential for clarity and balance. Using grids will help you make fine adjustments and create an optical illusion. Your design must be as neat as possible so the symbol on the icon can dominate and command attention and provide the best user experience. 

Start with geometric shapes

Using geometric shapes for icon creation allows you to draw quicker than drawing everything yourself. But more importantly, icons come out to be more precise and smooth when made with geometric shapes.

For example, it is very easy to use the curvature of a circle than to draw a perfect circle using the pen tool. 

Here’s a YouTube video by idedobe on how to design a bell icon on a 100pxX100px grid, using a circle and two rectangles.

In Adobe Illustrator, you can simply tug the corners and pull them outwards to create the hollow base of the bell. Prefer 45-degree angles or multiples thereof for crisp results. Breaking this rule is acceptable in halves (22.5 degrees) or multiples of 15 degrees, depending on the design.

Use shape tools and precise numbers to create curves whenever possible. Hand-drawing may result in less-than-perfect curves, impacting the overall quality. 

Consider common rounded-corner values, like a 40-pixel radius for this design, to balance visibility and maintain the design's personality. Rounded corners are an aesthetic choice that influences the overall set.

Align elements to the pixel grid for pixel-perfect results, especially at smaller sizes. This ensures crisp edges, particularly on straight lines and precise angles.

Keep it simple. Don’t overwhelm your design by using too many details. Remember, icons are designed in small formats, and the goal is to use the bare minimum to make the statement. Including too many elements will make your icon too complicated and unreadable.

Reductive style is always the safe bet. It’s better to keep your icons short and sweet than risk making them unreadable and confusing by using too many visual elements

Use the correct line weight

In most icon designs, you need two pre-determined line weights, in some cases, you might even need three. Choose your line weights before you start polishing your icons.

Established line weights help you maintain visual hierarchy and an icon set’s consistency. That’s why do not use more than three line weights, otherwise, it might mess up the cohesion.

For example, the benefit of 2- and 4-pixel line weights is that they are multiples of 2 and, therefore, easily scale up and down in even increments. 

Image: Scott Lewis

One tip that you must follow is always to avoid thin lines, especially in glyphs and flat icons. 

Stay consistent with contrast, lighting, and colors

The idea is to incorporate your brand’s colors and pair them with the color that will create the perfect contrast and make your design grab attention at first glance. However, don’t make the mistake of using colors that clash with each other a lot; make the contrast subtle but effective.

LA22.08 graphic 3.jpg

If you decide to use shadows and play with lighting, you should use them correctly. If you use a light source in one direction, then stay true to that and apply that scheme on all other icons, or else you will compromise the integrated design.

Communicate your message clearly

Clarity is one of the most important guidelines for icon design. The message you want to convey via your icon must be crystal clear. Context is key in creating purposeful icons; without it, irrelevant details can lead to confusion. 

Whether for mobile apps or system tray icons, understanding the context is essential for effective design. 

Think about the purpose and establish a clear association between design and meaning. Outstanding icons can endure for years, transcending their original reference points, like the timeless "save" button resembling a floppy disc.

Make it unique and original

Every graphic designer wants to create high-quality icon packs that are memorable and simple enough to understand. Even if it looks cliche, use easy-to-understand visual elements but do not forget to add your own twist to it.

Many iconographers create custom icons and offer them for free. This allows them to test their designs when users download and use the icons and provide feedback. If you do this, too, you can use this feedback to create a more unique and original variant of the icons and sell them as a premium icon pack. 


We have shared the essentials of what goes into making a good icon and the tips you should follow when designing an icon. Choose a basic form and keep designing till you create a premium-quality icon. Just remember, keep your icons internally consistent.

If you are designing an icon set, use shared elements, consistent line weights, and pre-determined colors to create aesthetic unity. But when doing all this, do not forget to infuse your creative vision into the icon design.

However, if you are still unsure about your icon design, check out ManyPixels. The unlimited graphic and web design service that helps you scale your creative content production with a reliable and hassle-free design service.

ManyPixels provides you with unlimited design requests for a flat monthly fee. You are connected with the best designer according to your design needs and receive your icon packs within 48 hours - that too, with unlimited revisions!

So, what are you waiting for? Book your free demo call with ManyPixels today and get your icon set for your design project

Privileged to be raised in the most beautiful city in the world, Novi Sad. Studied biology and ecology at the University of Novi Sad. A creative soul, travel enthusiast, passionate writer, and crazy dog lover. Proud mama of (for now :) ) one stubborn English Bulldog.

How we can help

A design solution you will love


Fast & Reliable

Get your design back in 1-2 business days.

Fixed Monthly Rate

Unlimited requests & revisions, same price.

Flexible & Scalable

No contracts. Scale up or down as you go.

Pro Designers

Work with battle-tested professionals only.
Book a call

Our top 100 Illustrations

Get inspired with some of ManyPixels best custom illustrations. Download our portfolio to check them out!

Wait... there’s more!

Enjoyed the read? Subscribe to our mailing list for all the latest tips, how-tos and news on graphic design and marketing.

Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.