How To Find, Select and Format Icons For Your Applications

Whether you do web design or desktop application development, you’re eventually going to need to include icons in your interface. Not all software developers are handy with image editing software, we can use it, like most people know how to use a paint brush, it’s just that we have trouble using the tool to make something that would meet our users expectations. Luckily there are a lot of free resources out there that provide premade icons created by people who have artistic talent.

Icon Finder – Provides a Google like image search that only returns icons
Tango Desktop Project – A pack of icons available in every format and resolution you would ever need, licensed under GPL.
Famfamfam – A collection of icons with a simple and minimalistic style to them. There’s also another pack in the same style available here.
Pixel Resort – Fairly new site, with a rapidly growing collection of icons.
Deviant Art – Probably one of the largest collections available, however it’s really hit or miss, you can find some really nice sets if you can spare the time.

It’s very likely you will find an icon that you like but isn’t provided in the size or format you’re looking for. In this case I recommend downloading Paint.NET which is a free image editing program that has excellent plugin support. If you’re working on a desktop application and require icons in .ICO format you can download the ICO plugin for Paint.NET here.

I guess now would also be a good time to talk about what image format to use for you icons. The best format for most applications is PNG. It’s small, no visible compression artifacts and supports alpha transparency. Applications built in Visual Studio support PNG icons along with transparency as do all modern browsers. As is usually the problem, Internet Explorer is the black sheep of the crowd and needs special attention when it comes to PNGs. There are still quite a few people using IE6 which does support PNGs but not PNG transparency. There is a solution to this using javascript within your CSS file to load the appropriate libraries to handle the transparency, however there are some major drawbacks to doing this as discussed here. IE7 introduces PNG transparency support, however still has the problem of incorrectly rendering colors in PNG files, seemingly oversaturating them. The next alternative is the GIF format, which also doesn’t have visible compression artifacts and allows for simple non-alpha transparency. Avoid using JPEGs whenever possible.

As far as what you should look for when choosing an icon, try to keep a consistent theme amongst your application, mixing icons from different collections and artists can give the application a rough and inconsistent feel. Apple has an article aimed at developers outlining their guidelines for icon selection and placement. While some of it is Mac specific, many ideas can be related to all applications regardless of platform or OS. Here are some highlights from the article:

  • The icon should contain a tool that communicates the type of task the application allows the user to accomplish. The Preview icon, for example, uses a magnification tool to help convey that the application can be used to view pictures. If you include a supportive tool element, it should closely relate to the base object that it rests upon.
  • Some applications that represent objects, such as QuickTime Player and Calculator, are most easily recognized by the objects themselves. When creating icons for such applications, it’s more aesthetically pleasing to create a simplified, idealized representation of the object, instead of using an actual screen shot of the software. Re-creating the object is particularly important when users could confuse the icon with the actual interface.
  • Because utility applications are normally focused on a narrow set of tasks, it’s best to keep the number of elements in the icon to a minimum. The focus should be a single object that represents what the utility does.
  • The primary purpose of a toolbar is to provide users with easy access to frequently used commands. Although toolbar icons should conserve screen real estate they should be inviting and easy to identify. Ideally, each toolbar icon should represent a unique object or action that is directly related to the command it represents. A toolbar can also contain icons that represent recognizable interface elements from elsewhere in the system when they make sense in the context of the application. If you choose to include an icon such as an Info button, be sure to preserve its meaning. Users expect such icons to mean the same thing in every context, so you should not redefine them when you use them in your toolbar.
  • Do not use a system icon, such as the yellow caution icon, in your toolbar. A system icon provides important information to the user in a specific context, such as in an alert window; using it in a toolbar blurs its meaning and dilutes it effectiveness in the system.
  • Making each toolbar icon distinct helps the user associate it with its purpose and locate it quickly. Variations in shape, color, and image all help to differentiate one toolbar icon from another. At the same time, however, an application’s toolbar icons should harmonize together as much as possible in their perspective, use of color, size, and visual weight.
  • Creating a family of visually related toolbar icons can strengthen the user’s perception of your application as being well-integrated and well-designed. One way to do this is to start with a consistent theme for the style and appearance of the icons, then introduce variations when it makes sense.