Best Practices to Help You Design a Killer Mobile App Icon

Jenna Rodrigues
September 20, 2021

When you look at your iPhone home screen and see the outline of a ghost on a bright yellow background, you immediately think of Snapchat. When you see a blue background with an open box, you think of Dropbox and the files that you recently uploaded.

While there are several different apps that you use on a daily basis, I’m sure you could only remember a handful of the logos offhand without taking a quick glance at your home screen. There’s a good reason that certain app icons stick in your brain over others. This is because these mobile app professionals followed certain best practices when crafting and refining their app icons that have become synonymous with the apps for users. An app icon is a big part of the visual representation of a mobile app brand, so don’t take designing your app icon lightly. Instead, follow the tips that we’ll walk through in this article to design a killer app icon.

Where will your icon be used?

Before you design an app icon, you need to understand the several different locations where this icon will appear and walk through all applicable use cases. Understanding the several different places where your icon will end up will help you to design a visual that is applicable in all instances.

You can expect that your icon will be featured on the iOS AppStore, Google Play, the settings panel, within search results, and on users’ home screens. You’ll need to ensure that your app is flexible enough that it works in all of these different settings and is appealing in all visual instances.

What are some best practices to keep in mind when designing your icon?

Keep it Simple and Unique

When designing a new app icon, the first step is to try to come up with a unique shape or symbol. Don’t aim to create something overly artistic or complex. Instead, aim to come up with something that’s simplistic and easily recognizable. Boil down the concept and design as much as possible and stay away from icons that are too busy, as these risk getting lost in the shuffle.

There is a ton of noise on users’ home screens, so you want to make sure your app icon really pops when they’re doing an eye scan across all of their icons. You want to make sure that when users are looking for your app on their home screen, they are able to find it quickly and don’t need to think twice about remembering which icon is associated with your app. You don’t have control over the background image that a user sets, so choose colors that pop on any given background.

Symbolically Represent the Brand

So we mentioned that your app icon should be simple and not overly busy, but what should it look like and where should you draw your inspiration from? The optimal icon serves as a symbolic representation of the app’s value proposition. This will help users to easily remember what the purpose of your app is and what they should look to use your app for as they’re going about their daily lives.

Stay away from incorporating full words into your app icon as this tends to be distracting and is less memorable. Words can also be difficult to read on an icon from far away. As a last resort, you can consider using one letter from the app name and try turning this into a symbol. While a few brands have done this successfully, this is often an uphill battle and something that you should only resort to if you’ve exhausted all alternative options.

When choosing a symbol that will represent your value proposition, aim for one that will not make the product offering ambiguous or confusing. This should ultimately become synonymous with what your app can offer to the user. Make sure the symbol will look good in all of the different settings where it will appear without creating a cluttered look and feel. There shouldn’t be a symbolic disconnect between the visual symbol that you choose and what your app’s value proposition is.

Do Your Research

When you’re trying to figure out where to draw inspiration from when designing your app icon, start by looking through your phone or on the App Store and pull out a few of the icons you like best. For each of these sample app icons, try to think from the designer’s perspective regarding how they might have constructed that app icon from scratch knowing what you now know about the app and the associated brand image.

Try to dig up stories or talk to other app professionals to learn about what inspired them to build their app icons as they did. When you’re brainstorming different app icon ideas and doing market research, don’t limit your thinking and play it safe. Rather, focus on trying to create something unique and think outside the box when you’re brainstorming. You’re going to be competing with so many other icons that you need to be creative to get yours to really stand out.

Test and Refine

Before you go live with your app icon, test different versions of the icon to see what users will respond to best. Construct several different draft iterations of the icon and start by pinning them up against each other on different backgrounds to see which one consistently manages to grab your attention. Once you’ve narrowed down to a few of your top choices, run them by some individuals in your target audience or consider doing a formal test through launching an online survey.

If you are going to test several different versions, try to do it behind the scenes before you go live on the App Store. If you wait until you go live and then decide to swap the icon out to test it on the App Store itself, you’ll need to wait about nine days to get an app reapproved. For example, if you launch with one app icon, decide to swap it out to test another, and then find that the original worked better and want to revert back to the old one, it typically takes about a week and a half to get that old one reapproved. Therefore, it’s easier to do the user testing of the app icon behind the scenes to alleviate some of these logistical hurdles.

Key Takeaways

Designing an app icon is a big undertaking. While it’s something that you can ultimately swap out if you decide to go in a different direction, this process takes time and requires some design resources. Therefore, try to do your due diligence and take the time to understand what makes app icons truly successful before you engage in the design process. While everyone brings their own personal style and flare to the design process, there are a few key design principles that you should keep in mind.

While it may seem like simply a small square image, don’t underestimate the importance of the app icon in launching and extending the reach of your mobile app. Focus on coming up with a symbol that can capture the user’s attention and stand apart from the several other icons on the user’s home screen. When users are mindlessly scrolling through their phones, they should be able to easily associate the symbolism and/or color scheme that you put forth with the functionality of your app itself. Designing a mobile app icon doesn’t come naturally for everyone, so if you need some help, reach out to our team here at Camber Creative to help you figure out how to visually represent your brand.

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