How to Design the Perfect Mobile App Icon In 9 Steps

“There’s an app for that” was one of those iconic phrases of the early 2000s. And, it’s true. Just about anything you want to do is likely found in an app somewhere. We use apps for alarms, e-commerce, taking notes, playing games, accessing social media and so much more. When you want to create your own app for your brand, you will need to come up with a mobile app icon that is appealing and consistent with your app.

What is a Mobile App Icon?

With so many apps available, you need a way to make sure your app is able to stand apart from the crowd. In the app/play stores, you need a mobile app icon so users will stop and check out your app description to see if it fits their needs. Once downloaded, you are still battling to be seen in the spattered collection of apps that cover the device’s background.

The app icon is almost like a logo for your brand.

You will need an image or logo in a very specific small, rounded-square shape that matches all the other app icons already on the device. While the shape is going to be exactly the same, you want to make sure the design is not.

9 Steps to Design the Perfect Mobile App Icon

You don’t want just any image representing your brand and app. According to branding agency, DigitalSilk, your mobile app icon should be specifically designed to represent your app.

In order to make sure you end up with an effective button that works well for your device application, we will cover the eight steps you should take while designing your app icon.

1. Clearly communicate app function

First and foremost, the app icon should be a clear indicator of what your app does. While the app should stay cohesive with your brand, the app icon needs to represent your app over everything else. The design you create should come from the app and not your company branding.

This means choosing imagery that illustrates the purpose of your app. Email apps often use envelopes or @ symbols. Games will typically show a representation of the game redesigned to fit in the composition of the small square. Don’t just grab a screenshot—think about how you can create almost a caricature of what you offer. You want to create an icon that is the most simple and easy-to-understand version of your app.

2. Spy on the competition

You do not want an app icon that looks just like the competition. If your apps are easily confused, then the users are likely to be annoyed. You want something that stands out and is clearly unique to your app.

Do some basic research to know what competitor apps pop up for your industry. Then, look to see what unrelated apps are popping up for similar searches—these are direct competitors, but you still don’t want to be mistaken for them!

Note, not just the imagery of these other app icons, but the color schemes too. Sometimes, you can choose similar imagery in a different color scheme and with a slightly different style.

3. Visualize the color scheme

You want to choose bright colors and simple shapes for your app. The color scheme you create should be bright and eye-catching.

Choose a few different ideas for how to convey your app function. Then, use various layout ideas and representative icons to explore those ideas. Consider how you can create a similar, but simplified, style to what is showcased on your app.

Try zooming in on elements within your app. For games, this might include game pieces, like Snake, Solitaire, Angry Birds or Words with Friends. ColorNote uses an image of stickies, while Amazon shows an illustrated side of their iconic Amazon smile box. Pokémon Go shows the poke ball on a game-inspired background.

Some apps use the brand logo, like Chase, Target and the YMCA. Other apps choose icons that represent the app function, like MyFitnessPal, Preview and iNaturalist.

4. Only use vector images

You do not want to use a photo for your icon. A photo is raster-based, which means it relies on pixels for design. Instead, used vector-based images, which are created with smooth shapes and lines that scale indefinitely. You make vector-based images on tools like Adobe Illustrator.

Even if you have a photo you love, you will want to turn it into a vector illustration. Photos are usually more cluttered with real textures and not dramatic enough to make good icons. Remember, you need a caricature of your app. Photos would also look very out of place compared to the illustrated nature of the other apps.

5. Keep it simple and clean

You should not include words in your design. Full words are going to get cluttery and be extremely hard to read at the smallest icon sizes (around 50px). If you want to include part of your logo, you can use a singular letter, like Facebook, Pandora, PayPal, Pinterest, Groupon and Venmo. These apps are very well-known, so they can get away with icons that only showcase their brand and nothing of the actual app function.

In most cases, you will want your icon to show a little more of what exactly the app does.

6. Create many (many) versions

True graphic designers create multiple versions at every stage of the creation process. Start out with a bunch of rough sketches. A designer might come up with 50 “thumbnails” (or quick, small sketches of ideas to test out compositions and imagery).

After creating a lot of very simple sketches, the graphic designer would then mock up several (maybe 5-10) rough sketches that are more detailed and fleshed out. Those will eventually turn into a small handful (2-3) versions of the icon that are done. In some cases, you will be left with only one final design, but that makes it harder to do A/B testing.

To do testing, you can use PickFu or a similar tool to gauge user reactions. You won’t do the A/B testing in the app store itself because the approval time of nine days makes it too hard. It just takes too long to change out your icons multiple times and gauge user reaction.

7. Experiment with borders

One of the design variations you should try is adding a border. Creating a border can sometimes help your app stand out from the background and pop. Sometimes the border doesn’t add any value and isn’t necessary.

When you’ve paired down your design to your final one or two options, try adding and removing the border. Try changing the thickness or the color. Go with the app that is going to grab the most attention when compared to competitors or other apps your target audience loves to use.

Also, consider your brand style – though the style shouldn’t be the only deciding factor. The app icon can be a little different from the app illustrations itself as long as the design decisions are to improve the app’s appeal.

8. Finish with the right sizes

Your app won’t even be approved into the app store if it isn’t the right size. You need to create your icon in a square shape. As you are working on your icon, remember the requirements for size. You definitely want to make sure you are creating the right icon size.

Android recommends creating artwork at 864×864 pixels. For iOS app designs, the recommendation is 1024×1024 pixels. But, these won’t be the final sizes you are exporting for the stores.

You will want to save each different size required for a generalized device and keep them in a resource directory within the app. For both Android and iOS apps, you will want to make these final images PNG files, generally 96×96, 72×72 and 48×48 pixels.

As you are testing out your icon design, make sure you view it in very small sizes. You need to ensure the image translates easily if it’s viewed at 30-50 pixels. Since most designs are created in a larger size, it’s easy to start including details that simply don’t translate to the actual app icon at a smaller size. This is one reason you shouldn’t use words in your app icon design.

9. Decide how you will design it

Now, that you know how to design the perfect mobile app icon, it’s time to decide how you will actually create it. You have a few options:

Do It Yourself – For those of you with design chops, and good design software like Adobe, you can take the tips and insights on this post and create your own icon logo.

Online tools – If you don’t have any design skills. Then, you could create your icon with a logo maker, this is a more hands-off (and cheaper) approach, where you use AI to create your design. You do have the option to customize the final design, but it’s limited.

Hire a designer – Most people know a graphic designer that can whip up a good logo design. If you don’t you can hire one from one of the many graphic designer marketplaces. The key to working with a designer is creating a detailed brief that they can work from.

Time to rock your app icon design!

Launching a new app or rebranding an existing one is exciting. However, as the app market gets more competitive and saturated, you really have to spend time creating an app icon that speaks more than a thousand words.

But, if you follow the tips in this post, you are already halfway to creating an app icon that stands out from the crowd.
Happy designing and best of luck with your app.