Fundamentals Of Icon Design

Icons are a crucial part of any design system. They are the foundation blocks of illustrated content. So, are you ready to master the basics of icon design? If so, this article is for you.

October 3, 2023

Table of Contents

Why do icons matter? Look at them 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.

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.

9 Fundamental elements of 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.

1. Form

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.

2. Readability

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.

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3. Originality

Every graphic designer has one goal: to create a memorable icon that is simple enough to understand. The significant role these images play in our daily lives is often overlooked. When designing an icon it is important to use easy-to-understand visual elements no matter how cliché they might be.

For decades, specific shapes have been used to symbolize warnings, directions, ideas, etc. This should be used to our advantage since most people will understand the meaning. But they will love the twist that you can add to a "golden oldie" by playing with the design and making it unique and memorable.

4. Uniformity

Designers usually create a set of icons and rarely just one icon. They represent different subjects and actions, but they are related through a 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.

5. Simplicity

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.

6. Composition and balance

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).

If the design has too much blank space or too many visual elements, the overall visual effect will be unsatisfying, and your audience won’t pay attention to them. Strive to achieve harmony and maintain the same stylistic rules throughout the set. If some icons seem heavier than others, redesign them to fit.

7. Scalability

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 onto 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.

8. Contrast, lighting, and colors

Choosing the right color palette for a set of icons is essential. Of course, you should include 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.

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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.

9. Ease of use

Your icon set design is not done once it’s been drawn to perfection. You need to organize them, name them, and arrange them to be easily located. You can categorize them by size, by type, by importance, or simply by alphabet.

In the end, your icons must be tested to see whether they work in the specific size and also if you resize them. You can place them next to each other and compare how clear and readable they are in different formats.

Name them appropriately and use the font that will match the brand’s design or the theme of your icon set. Every icon has its own personality, nurture that, and you can be sure of its success.

The outcome

Consistency is primary when creating a great looking and effective user interface regardless of the type of icon. Sticking to the brand’s voice and image will significantly help enhance the visual aspect of your content, so don't underestimate it.

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.

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