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Icon Design

Technical Details of Icon Making

Let's discuss purely technical details of icon making

1. Lines, slopes

One of the most important parts of the composition is the outline of the object, i.e. solid linear marking, which separates the object from the background. When designing normal-sized graphics, the artist rarely thinks about highlighting of objects with complementary lines. This is unnecessary because of the scale: even non-contrasted objects do not blend into a one. Icon graphics is other story. Two solutions are possible: either foreground and background colors must be from different sides of the color chart, or the object should be divided from the background by contrast outlines and shadows. I would like to discuss lines deeper.

If we think again to the big-size graphics, we can note that in order to highlight contours, we can use any (even the most complex) angles, Bezier splines and borders. Anyway, the line will appear perfect thanks to anti-aliasing. When decreasing the graphic scale to the size of an icon, situation changes dramatically. When each single pixel is equally valuable and can change the whole look of the composition, anti-aliasing is simply unreasonable. It comes that you have to consider the possible line slopes.

The angle you select for the line, specifies the step for this line. Because each line is made of primary elements, the combination of which determines its neatness and visual appeal.

For example, a 18-degree angle contains many tiny 3-pixel lines connected using a 1-pixel downshift:
Lines and pixels

This is how nearly every line looks like. Primary element followed by joining followed by second basic element. Unfortunately, not every angle creates lines that look look neet and not messy.

For example, here are 25 and 20-degree angles:

It can be easily known which line is more attractive. The 25-degree slope makes a line containing equal 2-pixel basic elements. The 20-degree slope has a primary element consisting of three lines: 3-pixel, 3-pixel and 2-pixel. The angle is more complicated, therefore, if not combined by other visual effects, it creates a feeling of messiness: the basic elements have contrast which is too obvious to escape the human sight.

Here we can see the first conclusion. The most "appropriate" slopes have to make as plain basic elements as possible. therefore, the ideal slopes are 0 and 90 degrees. In those, 1-pixel basic elements are joined without any shift and form smooth lines. Less perfect are angles which form basic elements of 1, 2, 3 pixel with 1-pixel downshift. Surely, the lines will not be smooth, but the human brain will process the image and provide to the viewer what you meant to show to him. Also, the mentioned angles can be considered acceptable (but at a stretch): angles with primary elements consisting of unequal lines shifted by more than 1 pixel.

For example:

Now we can move to another problem. In the last paragraph, I purposely defined slopes with primary elements of 1, 2 and 3 pixels as acceptable. Such small lines, especially when a great number of them is combined, look like a single whole. But what happens if we increase the basic elements to 10 or 20 pixels?

Here is an example:
Low quality line

It can be clearly noticed that the line doesn't have solidness. It is not a continuous line anymore; it is a set of several lines, located near one another. Hardly any designer wants its creation to look inconsistent. Thus, we come to another rule: if you use minimal slopes, which make long primary elements, it has to be justified and used with great attention.

And, finally, the third thing I wanted to tell about lines. I already wrote that the basic element has to be as simple as it can.

For example, a 25-degree slope can be produced in the two (of course more of them exists) following ways:
25-degree angles

In the first case the primary element is a 2-pixel line. In the other case, it is made of three lines: 3-pixel, 2-pixel and 1-pixel. The same slope but the image is different. The complex basic element made the line untidy.

This examples can be produced for about any angle, so in your projects, make sure to simplify as much as possible.

2. Color

It can be stated without an exaggeration that the color is the leading element of your work; not suiting or poorly balanced colors can ruin even the most creative idea. What can we write about the color in miniature graphics?

First, there is a clear rule: if the image looks poor when reduced to monochrome, it means the colors that were selected are wrong. This rule is valid not only for icons but for the whole graphic design.

Second, you will be unable to apply common RGB. Sure, you may use internet colors only, but this ties you hand and foot. Gradients, shadows, blending and many other tricks will not be accessible to you.

Third, try to increase the areas of "flat" color. The more consistently colored parts without diffusion and jumps your composition has, the more clear it looks. Icons are too tiny and the excess usage of complex effects makes the picture look messy.

Fourth, gradients. This is a great tool which can change the appearance of any picture. Besides esthetics, gradients are an ideal solution to get rid of the "broken line" effect (lines with too long primary elements). But be careful when applying them since too many gradients can kill the plain color, and be unable to fit into the gif palette.

Fifth, shadows and highlights. All rules for applying shadows and highlights in icon making are completely identical to the aspects of the general graphic design. The only ine I have to note: draw everything yourself. Don't apply filters, make all shades and highlights in a different layer and then edit the opacity. If applying effects, you rarely can predict what the result will be. It is bad when you can't control the making of a project. It is worse if you don't control it if drawing icons.

And, lastly, sixth. Nuancing is the key aspect of icon creation, which greatly affects the visual look of the project. When the blue human eye in the icon is sized 1 pixel, increase the color intensiveness. For instance, instead of 0, 131, 159 make 71, 195, 242. It is indifferent that the human eye never has such color; in the first example it will appear like a gray dot, and in the second example it will really be a blue eye.

Thoroughly control the picture, do not let the optical tricks to spoil your work. It is OK if something is not perfect from the technical point of view, but the whole picture must be flawless.

As an example, I drew the packet of juice located before me. The picture has plain color, gradients with broken lines, shades and flares and nuances.

3. Text

If I talked about something bigger than miniature creation, this chapter wouldn't fit into an entire book, but the resolution of pictures restricts fonts too.

The resolution of letters becomes the main issue as opposed to their fineness. Nearly in all cases, unless the letters are the primary part of the composition, the text size has to be decreased to the largest extent possible.

In general, virtually any design studio has its own font with small characters. This font can be created in several hours. You can browse the web and collect your own collection of very nice fonts. Primarily, I advice you to download the DS Pixel and Seventen 7Vedi webpage as well as the entire series of fonts from the Lakmus Lab website.

If you don't need a new font, small sizes of Arial and Verdana will do. As a last resort, you can create the necessary letters by hand.

There are quite a few rules there. First, characters cannot be less than 5 pixels high or less than 3 pixels wide.



Second, letters cannot use anti-aliasing. It turns the font into an incomprehensible mixture of pixels.

However, there are no rules without exceptions and the 5-point Arial appears perfectly understandable.

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