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Technical Aspects of Icon Creation

Let's consider strictly technical details of icon making

1. Lines, angles

One of the most important parts of the composition is the framework of the object, i.e. solid line, which limits the object from the background. When working with normal-sized images, the artist rarely thinks about highlighting of objects with complementary outlines. This is unnecessary because of the size: even low contrast objects do not mix into a single whole. Icon graphics is different. Two variants are possible: either foreground and background colors must be from opposite sides of the color wheel, or the foreground must be separated from the background by contrast outlines and shadows. I would like to discuss lines deeper.

If we think again to the large scale graphics, we can note that in order to define contours, we can use all (including the most complicated) angles, Bezier curves and edges. Anyway, the line will appear ideal due to anti-aliasing. When decreasing the image scale to the small icon size, situation changes greatly. When every particular pixel is vitally important and can change the overall appearance of the icon, anti-aliasing is just not applicable. It means that you have to consider the possible line angles.

The angle you choose for the line, specifies the step for this line. Because each line consists of basic elements, the union of which determines its accuracy and esthetics.

For instance, a 18-degree slope contains many small 3-pixel lines combined with a 1-pixel downshift:
Lines and pixels

This is how nearly each line looks like. Basic element followed by joining followed by another basic element. Unfortunately, not every slope creates lines that look look neet and not messy.

For example, here are 25 and 20-degree slopes:
Lines

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

Here we can see the first conclusion. The most "correct" slopes must make as simple basic elements as they can. therefore, the ideal angles are 0 and 90 degrees. In those, 1-pixel basic elements are combined without downshift and form smooth lines. Less perfect are angles which form primary elements of 1, 2, 3 pixel with 1-pixel downshift. Surely, the lines can not be even, but the human sight will process the picture and present to the viewer what you intended to show to him. Also, the following angles can be considered acceptable (but at a stretch): angles with primary elements consisting of different lines shifted by more than 1 pixel.

For example:
Line

Now we can move to another problem. In the previous paragraph, I purposely defined slopes with primary elements of 1, 2 and 3 pixels as correct. Such small lines, especially when a large amount of them is joined, look like a single whole. But what do we see if we increase the primary elements to 10 or 20 pixels?

Here is an example:
Low quality line

It can be obviously noticed that the line loses its integrity. It is not a continuous line anymore; it is a set of several lines, located near one another. Rarely any designer wants its creation to look that way. Thus, we have the second rule: if you use minimal angles, which make long basic elements, it has to be justified and employed with maximum caution.

And, finally, the last aspect I have to mention about lines. I did write 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 picture the basic element is a 2-pixel line. In the other picture, it consists of three lines: 3-pixel, 2-pixel and 1-pixel. The same slope but the look is different. The complicated basic element made the line messy.

This examples can be made for almost any angle, so in your works, try to simplify everything.

2. Color

It can be stated without an overstatement that the color is the leading aspect of your work; improper or badly matched colors can ruin even the best idea. What can we write about the color in miniature graphics?

First, there is a clear rule: if the image looks bad when reduced to monochrome, it means the colors that were selected are incorrect. This rule is true not exclusively for icons but for the entire graphic design.

Second, you will probably unable to use safe RGB. Sure, you may use GIF colors only, but this ties you hand and foot. Gradients, shadows, dithering and many other effects will not be accessible to you.

Third, try to increase the areas of "plain" color. The more consistently colored areas without blurring and jumps your composition has, the more neat it appears. Icons are too tiny and the excess usage of complex filters makes the image look dirty.

Fourth, gradients. This is a wonderful tool which can change the look of any project. Besides visuals, gradients are an ideal way to abolish the "broken line" look (lines with too long basic elements). But be careful when using them because too much gradients can ruin the plain color, and be unable to fit into the gif palette.

Fifth, shadows and highlights. All aspects of applying shades and highlights in icon design are totally the same to the rules of the overall graphic design. The only ine I have to mention: create everything yourself. Don't use filters, make all shadows and flares in a separate layer and then edit the opacity. If using effects, you almost never know what will it look like. It is bad when you don't control the process of creating of a project. It is worse if you can't control it if drawing miniatures.

And, finally, sixth. Tinting is the key aspect of pictogram creation, which greatly affects the esthetic appearance of the composition. If the green human eye in the image has the size of 1 pixel, increase the color saturation. For example, instead of 0, 131, 159 choose 71, 195, 242. It doesn't matter that the human eye can't have such color; in the first case 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 illusions to spoil your work. It is OK if objects is not consistent technically, but the whole image must be perfect.

As an example, I drew the pack of juice standing before me. The image has plain color, gradients with broken lines, shades and flares and tints.
Juice

3. Text

If I talked about something other than miniature creation, this chapter wouldn't fit into a whole book, but the size of pictures ;limits fonts too.

The resolution of symbols is the main aspect as opposed to their fineness. Nearly in all cases, only if not the letters are the main part of the project, the text size must be decreased to the largest extent possible.

In principle, almost any graphic company has its unique font with little letters. This font can be crafted in a few hours. You can browse the internet and make your own library of very interesting fonts. First of all, I would recommend you to download the DS Pixel and Seventen 7Vedi website as well as the whole series of fonts from the Lakmus Lab website.

If you don't want a new font, little sizes of Arial and Verdana may work. As a last resort, you can create the necessary characters by hand.

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

Example:

Font

Second, letters should not use anti-aliasing. It transforms the font into an unrecognizable mixture of pixels.

Though, there are no rules without exceptions and the 5-point Arial looks rather understandable.

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