Content Marketing Specialist, teasing everyone into taking cute pictures for Instagram. Discovering the tech world bit by bit, and writing it all down on the agency's blog. Enthusiastic about everything visual. And sweets and dogs.
There’s a lot of elaborate work that goes into designing (and developing) a mobile app, and app icon design is no exception. Although it’s one of the smallest pieces that make up the digital puzzle that a mobile application is, the app icon is one of the factors that are most obvious to the user, especially when we’re talking first encounters.
Needless to say, you want your app to stand out and be memorable.
So what you’re gonna do is put pen to paper or whatever suits your work methodology, and design a super-duper app icon with these 5 aspects in mind:
- No words
If there’s one thing you need to know about app icons, it’s this: the icon for your app should originate from the app creation process. You should not treat it as an afterthought, but gather the info throughout the app development process, and shape the app icon accordingly.
We say this from experience.
How to design an app icon to fit the product like a glove
The KALiiN mobile app is a smart, AI-based assistant wrapped around a neat calendar app. It’s meant to help the user profit from the hours within a day to the fullest. It’s also a mobile project we’ve given our all to: we’ve been there from the very beginning, establishing a rock solid mobile product strategy, up to creating a sleek and alluring design for the app, and developing the mobile app for iOS and Android devices.
When it came to making an app icon for this innovative mobile app, we made sure to do our homework right.
We started with the app’s main attraction: its AI assistant capabilities. So we gathered images of relevant examples on the matter of AI assistants – from Samantha, to Siri and Cortana, Ironman’s Jarvis, and even Auto from Wall-E – in a simple, yet eye-opening photo collage that would definitely point us in the right direction.
The visual appearance of all these AI examples was presented as a simple geometric shape: a circle mostly, with some variations of details. We decided to design KALiiN’s app icon as simple as possible, on the same note of a geometric shape, but, at the same time, to underline its spirit via some of the key design elements of the app.
We came up with this: As you can tell we settled on the letter A. Just not your average letter A. We gave it a creative twist and ended up with a geometric, unique shape that manages to communicate the app’s function, and the app’s look and feel. Besides representing the mobile app right, this app icon design is 100% scalability proof. This means that, whether it’s an app store, the user’s home screen or the smartphone’s Settings panel, the app icon will maintain its clean appearance, and will be just as legible in any of these situations.
You might wonder why the letter K didn’t make the cut. It’s because two of the very important notions that gravitate around this mobile product are “artificial intelligence” and “assistant”. Notice the letter A coming up in every one of them at the very beginning? We considered this connection to be a lot more meaningful to the user than the one between the letter K and the name of the app, KALiiN. Having this connection between the letter A and one of the main functionalities of the app would help the user understand its purpose, thus make the product more easily recognizable and, as a result, more memorable.
The fiery magenta center of the app icon is another point of interest within the icon, as well as within the mobile app itself. You may call this KALiiN’s eye, mouth, brain. Or a tiny window to its soul, because this little colored triangle is a clear indicator of the app’s status at a given time. The user will know when the app is in zen mode, what kind of notification is awaiting their attention, whether the app is processing information, or if KALiiN is chatting with them. It was of the utmost importance for this little triangle to be represented right in the app icon. It may seem a tiny, meaningless detail. But in fact, it’s details like this that insure a sense of consistency around the product. If the in-app experience supports the outside-app experience, then this will create a more memorable user-app encounter, which can only add to the app’s success.
Scroll up again to our photo collage of relevant AI examples. As you can see, it’s all circles; and as you can clearly tell, KALiiN’s app icon is not. It’s vital to have a clear image of the market, or the domain, or the-whatever-it-is that you’re getting into, and to color within the given (relevant) lines. But if you’re able to color outside those lines and still make sense to your target audience, then you’ve hit the jackpot. The result, in this case, is an app icon design that matches the user’s expectations, yet manages to surprise and delight visually. The KALiiN app icon is a mix of simple, yet impactful, and unique shapes in vibrant colors found throughout the app itself.
App icon design: the 5 most important aspects
Making an app icon is actually making sense of a mobile app in a visually pleasing manner. The space is limited, and sometimes so is the context you want the app to live in. And of course, there are certain app icon design rules it would be wise of you to obey. But whenever you feel unpleasant constraint coming over you, remember this old saying: strong essences are kept in small bottles.
That being said, let’s take a closer look at the 5 most important factors it would be wise of you to keep in mind when designing app icons:
We’ll start with scalability. Whatever creative path you want to go down when making an app icon, always remember the many different contexts in which user and mobile app meet: App Store or Google Play, Settings panel, search results and the home screen. The app icon is shown at several sizes and the design needs to maintain its legibility and uniqueness. No excuses.
What you’ll want to do is find that one element that captures the essence of your mobile product and recreate it in a digitally, visually pleasing manner. You can go one of two ways: either come up with a unique shape, a figment of your imagination, that encompasses what your mobile app is all about, or create a vector image version of a specific image that you feel represents your app best. Whichever option you’ll choose, make sure you keep it simple and maintain a balance in detail.
The end result should be a uniquely shaped element that retains its qualities when scaled, that looks good against a variety of backgrounds, and, most importantly, that clearly identifies the mobile application in question. After all, that’s an app icon’s main, if not sole, purpose.
Recognizability probably has the biggest impact out of all the 5 aspects of app icon design we discuss in this article. We started with scalability because no matter how you decide to design your app icon, it’s crucial the icon scales well in all contexts. How you go about your mobile app’s icon design – this is where recognizability comes into play.
And like so many other things in mobile app development, app icon design starts with the (target) user of the mobile app to be. You need to have a very good understanding of the person you want to resonate with and then use this knowledge to meet their expectations, be it shapes, colors, ideas or concepts used in the carving of the product.
When you work on the app’s design – and the app’s icon is no exception – you need to think of how it will help the user connect with the product, on both a functional and an emotional level. Design the app icon so that it clearly communicates your product’s core value (establish a functional connection). Design the app icon in a way that is appealing to the target audience (establish an emotional connection).
If you manage to establish this two-way connection, you’re a big step closer to making your app icon memorable. Sure, it’s definitely recommended to come up with a bold, unique shape that’ll stand out in the crowd. Keeping the design simple is always a plus. But the design that hooks, the one that grabs the user’s attention and doesn’t let it go, is the one that helps them understand the product and the experience it offers.
Still on the note of your mobile app leaving its mark on the user’s memory, being consistent throughout the app’s design, app icon included, is a must. There are two angles to consistency: you have to maintain the design you have chosen for your mobile app within the product, as well as outside the product.
Think of all the different circumstances in which user and mobile app could meet. The App Store or Google Play, the app’s website, the product’s social media channels – all of these are part of outside-product user onboarding. And they’re all a chance for the user to get a glimpse of the experience your mobile product offers. Hence, you’ll want to show a unified image of your mobile app. Think visuals, copy, tone of voice, and app icon too – it all has to tell the same story.
And the closer the user gets to actually using your mobile app, the more defined their expectations towards your product. Think about it: the user has encountered your app in a variety of contexts, has decided to download the app and give it a try, and is now one step away from experiencing your mobile product. They’re one click away from using the app – one app icon click away, to be more precise.
You have to work towards offering a seamless, sleek user experience. Be consistent in the experience the user has when interacting with your product, whatever the circumstances: outside the mobile app, as well as inside the app. We’re talking color palette, design language, overall style. And having an app icon that accurately defines your app’s functionality and its “spirit” can only do good.
This is the part where you get all creative about your app icon design. It’s in your best interest to keep in mind everything we’ve discussed thus far: your app icon needs to be scalable, it has to be easily recognizable, and consistent with the mobile product itself.
But you know this just as well as I do: the app store is a crowded place, and there are probably a dozen apps similar to yours on it already. So yes, a little creativity never hurt nobody, and it won’t hurt your app either.
Before getting eagerly creative, it would be wise to do a thorough market research. Have a look at what your competitors are doing and then decide which way you want to go: will you adapt your design to theirs and give it a little twist of your own, or will you give your app icon a totally different design? Doing what everyone else is doing might mean your app will be swallowed up in a sea of similar app icons. Or it could mean that a trend has already been established, users are familiar with this specific element in your specific niche, and you not following suit might mean less adopters of your app. Your decision regarding the design of your app’s icon has to be an informed one, just like everything else about it.
Try out different iterations of your app icon design, as many as pop into your head. Even if you decide to go with the flow for the sake of an already well established familiarity, you can still play around with colors, textures, and whatnot. Challenge yourself to clever metaphors that could represent the core value of your product just as well as the element everyone else is using for this purpose. Ideally, you could have two final versions to choose from: a familiar approach, and a totally new one. In the end, you shouldn’t be surprised if you’ll see a way to blend the two together beautifully.
See how this is going? You can jump from one idea to the other as much as you want. Do it, until you have no more ideas left. Make sure to sketch it all down, and then go on to refining the ideas that represent your product’s core value best, while still being appealing to the target audience you’re after.
There’s no other, more poetic way of saying this: words in app icons are plain ugly, and useless. If the best you’ve got for your app icon is a word, you’re far from having sketched out all the ideas around your mobile product. Keep iterating.