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Comparing the Two Methods for Creating Line Icons: Offset Paths vs. Strokes

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Offset paths or strokes for line icons

This article is dedicated to a subject that is close to my heart but at the same time gave me some strong headaches in the early days of my design process. 

If you haven’t already guessed it from the title, well, it’s something deeply related to icon design, more precisely line icons and the two quite different methods of producing them: offsets vs. strokes. So whether you're creating your own or modifying an icon pack from Envato Market, this article will help.

That being said, buckle up and let’s go over the main pros and cons of using one over the other.

1. What Are Line Icons?

Well, that’s a really good question, especially if you’re just starting out as an icon designer, since at some point I remember asking myself the exact same question.

For those who already know the answer, well just bear with us, since it will only take a couple of seconds to get everybody else up to speed.

Line icons are icons that delimit the different building block sections of a composition, using thinner or thicker outlines, or lines.

There are two main types of line icons, which are actually pretty similar, the key difference being the use or rather lack of colored fill shapes.

naked line  and colored fill line icon example

Whether you decide to go fully naked and use only lines, or add details by filling up the empty space between those lines, it’s all up to you.

At this point, things might not seem all that complicated, at least on the surface, but as soon as you go about the process of creating the actual icons, things might start getting a tad fuzzy. That’s mainly because there are a lot of opinionated voices out there that talk about the different methods of creating the actual icons, but there aren’t many of them that do a direct comparison of the two processes.

So I thought I could step in and do this little written piece in order to do justice to both methods.

2. How Are Line Icons Created?

Okay, so we now know what line icons are, but how do we go about creating them?

As I mentioned in the introduction, there are two basic ways of creating these icons. The first one is using offset paths, which requires you to create a base shape and then add an offset to it, which you will transform into a line piece by cutting out the smaller shape from the larger one.

The second one relies on using Illustrator’s basic shapes combined with the Pen Tool (P) to create paths that use only thinner or thicker strokes, so no fills.

I’m going to go over each of them in the following minutes, and try to shed as much light as possible on both of them so that in the end you can decide on your own which one suits you best.

2.1. The Offset Path Method

First of all, what does the word “offset” mean?

Well, when used as a noun, I have to say that I really haven’t found any valid definition out there that would come close to its use in design. On the other side, when used as an adjective, things start to make a little more sense since the “placed away from a center line; off-center” explanation brings it closer to the way Illustrator uses it.

Now, to be honest, I can’t say that the official Adobe Illustrator manual does a very good job at explaining things, since the tool is listed under a somewhat misleading title “Offset duplicate objects”, which is a little bit incorrect.

That’s because the resulting objects aren’t actually duplicates, since a duplicate has the same characteristics, so size, color and shape as its original counterpart. I think the actual word they should have used is “copy”, since a copy can be “similar or identical” to the original, which is actually what Illustrator’s offset does.

I really believe that they could have done a better job if they had just named it something simple like “The Offset Path Tool” and described its functions using a couple of different subtitles and sections.

They do make things a little clearer once you start reading the actual body of the text:

“You can create a replica of an object, set off from the selected object by a specified distance, by using the Offset Path command or Offset Path effect. Offsetting objects is useful when you want to create concentric shapes or make many replications of an object with regular distances between each replication.”

I still found the definition to be a little vague, so I decided to try and explain the concept by taking a close look at the actual process that Illustrator follows in order to create it.

So, an offset path is basically a copy of a selected object that has been created by pushing its path towards the outside of the original shape, thus giving you a slightly larger version of that object that is identical in form and color but not in size.

Now, I don’t know about creating multiple concentric shapes, but this tool can be a perfect fit for creating line icons.

Yes, there are a couple of tricks that you need to be aware of when using it for this purpose, but I’ll talk about them in the following moments.

The Process

Well, the process depends on the type of icon that you’re going to be creating. If you remember right, in the first chapter I talked about the two types of line icons that are currently being used by designers: pure naked lines or line icons with fill shapes.

Since the Offset Path tool creates a copy of the original shape, that implies that the process of creating the lines will focus on using two objects, identical in terms of shape but different in size.

No matter the type of line icons that you decide to work with, the process of creating the actual offset is identical. First, you create your original shape, and then with it selected, you go to Object > Path > Offset Path where you will be greeted by a little pop-up window with a bunch of options.

The first one is Offset which, as you already know, controls the distance at which Illustrator will create and position the copy’s path.

The second option is Joins, which controls the overall aspect of a shape’s ending joins, giving you the following three options:

  • Miter, which leaves the angles straight and pointed
  • Round, which makes all the corner joins round
  • Bevel, which adds a flat top base to each of the corner’s joins

Depending on the visual style that you’re going for, you might choose one over the other. One thing that you should take into consideration is that these Joins only work on shapes that have pointed joins, and not round corners.

So, for example, if you have a square and want to create an offset and set its corners to Round, you can easily do that. On the other hand, if you have a rounded rectangle, the only type of Offset that you’ll get is Round no matter what you set the Joins option to.

This shouldn’t be an issue since I wouldn’t see anybody eager to create a rounded corner shape with some weird corner pointed outline.

The third and last option is Miter Limit. I tried searching for an official Adobe presentation of the option, but I couldn’t find a direct one. Instead, I found a really nice explanation of the Stroke’s Corner Miter Limit, which I guess works the same way as the Offset’s one:

“The miter limit controls when the program switches from a mitered (pointed) join to a beveled (squared-off) join. The default miter limit is 10, which means that when the length of the point reaches ten times the stroke weight, the program switches from a miter join to a bevel join. A miter limit of 1 results in a bevel join.”

If you test this, you might find that the default Miter Limit for the Offset is 4 (not 10) but other than that, they’re pretty much identical.

Okay, so we’ve probably gone a little bit too technical on the subject, but I wanted to explain things as thoroughly as possible.

At this point we know how to create the offset, but how do we use it in order to create the actual line icon? I’m going to show you the process for the naked line first.

Creating Naked Line Icons Using the Offset Path Tool

For those who are asking why I’m calling them “naked line icons”, let’s just say that I found the expression simpler to understand for somebody who is new to the game. That being said, no matter the type of icon that you choose, whether it’s naked or filled, they are both line icons.

Now, since I usually find examples to be more explicit than pure text, I’m going to walk you through the process of creating a little pet project icon of your own.

Since I needed something basic, that could easily explain the concept, I decided to create a little document icon, which is fast and easy to create.

When creating icons, there are a couple of things that the designer has to decide on. The first decision is usually that of choosing the base size for the icon. This step is really important since you will want to start from the smallest size and create larger versions from it, which, depending on your project’s needs, could be 32 x 32 px, 64 x 64 px, 96 x 96 px, etc.

Quick tip: If you’re wondering why you should start from a smaller size and work your way up to something bigger, well it’s quite simple: when you create pixel perfect icons that have odd number values (for example 3) and pick a relatively larger base size (64 x 64 px) but then decide that you also want to add a smaller one (32 x 32 px) then you might notice that things start to break. That’s because an odd number split in half will give you a decimal value, which can’t be correctly snapped to the Pixel Grid.

You can read more on the subject by going over some of my other tutorials:

In our case, let’s say that we want to go with a relatively large base of 96 x 96 px.

creating the icons base grid

Once we’ve decided on our size, we then have to start thinking about the weight of our lines. This step is equally important since we will need to create the main shape, making sure to leave a gap between it and the sides of our 96 x 96 px grid, since this is where the lines will actually be positioned.

That gap will represent the actual thickness of our lines, since we will apply an offset path to the original shape, and then create the “line icon” by cutting out the smaller shape from the larger one using Pathfinder’s Minus Front option.

For this example, we will go with a thickness of 4 px, which means that our main shape will have a gap of 4 px between the top and bottom sides of our grid.

If you’re wondering why we’re only interested in the top and bottom sides, well that’s because document icons are usually taller but slightly narrower in terms of width. If this were a different object, we might have needed to consider both the left and right sides since you’ll want things to be consistent.

Now, let’s start building the icon by drawing a 64 x 88 px rounded rectangle with a 4 px Corner Radius, which we will color using a darker shade of grey and position to the center of our grid.

As you can see, both the top and bottom sides of the shape have that 4 px gap which we will use as our offset’s value.

positioning the main shape for the document icon created using the offset path method

So, let’s select the shape and create the offset by going to Object > Path > Offset Path and entering 4 px into the Offset value field, leaving the Joins and Miter limit to their default values.

creating the outline for the naked line document icon using the offset path method

As soon as we click on OK, Illustrator will create our offset object, which will have the exact same shape and color as our document’s original shape.

Now, to create the line outline, we will simply select both shapes, and use Pathfinder’s Minus Front option to cut out the smaller shape from the larger one.

using pathfinders minus front option to create the main outline for the document icon using the offset path method

As you can see, we now have a new shape that has an all-around 4 px thick outline.

Pretty cool, right?

Now, let’s finish off the icon, by adding a couple of text lines using the Rectangle Tool (M) so that it will look like an actual document. When creating the shapes, make sure they have the same 4 px thickness value as the main outline, since line icons are usually consistent in terms of thickness.

adding the text line to the document icon using the offset path method

Creating Line Icons With Fill Shapes Using the Offset Path Tool

So at this point you should have a basic idea of how to create “naked line icons” using the incredibly powerful Offset Path Tool.

We will now take a look at creating the same document icon, but this time we will use lines in combination with fill shapes.

The process is almost identical—the only key difference is that this time, we won’t be cutting out the smaller shape from the larger one. Instead we will use the smaller one as a fill shape, and the offset as the icon’s outline.

So, let’s create the same 64 x 88 px rounded rectangle with the 4 px Corner Radius, and position it towards the center of our grid.

Then, with the shape selected, go to Object > Path > Offset Path and give it an offset of 4 px as we did with the previous icon.

Once you've done that, simply color the original shape using a darker shade of grey to make it stand out from the Artboard, and then add the little text lines.

creating the fill color line icon using the offset path method

As you can see, both of the processes are really easy to understand and apply, but there are a couple of things that you should be aware of when using the Offset Path tool to create these type of icons. We will talk about those aspects as soon as we go over the Strokes method so that we can have a larger perspective over the two.

2.2. The Strokes Method

This method is for many designers out there the “right” one since “line icons” should be created using actual lines / paths and not fill shapes. That’s probably a fair statement, but let’s be honest, most of the people out there that buy our icons don’t really care, since they’ll end up using them as .png files anyway.

The Process

Compared to the previous method, the process itself isn’t all that different, since we will still be using some of Illustrator’s basic shapes such as the Rectangle (M) and Rounded Rectangle Tool, but we won’t be cutting out anything. Instead, we will transform the shapes into lines, by removing their fill color and giving them a thinner or thicker stroke weight.

Along with basic shapes, we will also be using the Pen Tool (P) to add details and section delimitations to the icons depending on the complexity of your composition.

That being said, let’s go over the processes of creating both naked and filled line icons using this method, by creating the same little document icon.

Creating Naked Line Icons Using Strokes

No matter how you go about creating these type of icons, you’ll always have to decide on their base size and the line thickness that you’re going to be using.

Since in this case we will be creating the exact same icon, our size will remain the same, so 96 x 96 px, and so will our line thickness (4 px).

If for the previous method we needed to create two shapes, for this one we will only need one which we will transform into the document’s outline by flipping its fill color with its stroke.

So, using the Rounded Rectangle Tool, select the same grey color as before and then swap the fill with the stroke by pressing Shift-X. As you can see, this will remove any fill colors and let you draw using paths, which is exactly what we want.

Quick Tip: The Shift-X color swap works as long as you don’t have colors assigned to both the fill and stroke. If you do have two colors, then it will only invert them, which isn’t what we want when dealing with line icons. So, if you do have more than just a fill color, you should make sure to remove the second one.

Now, change the Stroke’s Weight to 4 px and start drawing the main shape of the icon by clicking and then dragging so that in the end you’ll have a 68 x 92 px shape with a Corner Radius of 6 px.

size comparison document icon created using the stroke method

If you’re wondering why the values have changed, that’s because instead of creating a base shape and then adding an offset, we will create the document’s outline directly using strokes. Now, if we were to take a close look at the outline created with the offset path method, we would notice that it has a width of 72 px...

size comparison document icon created using the offset path method

... and an outside Corner Radius of 8 px with just 4 px for the inside one.

corner radius values for the document icon created using the offset path method

The explanation is quite simple. Since Illustrator by default aligns the stroke to the inside, that means that the thickness of the line will be equally split on each side of the path, so 2 px for one side and another 2 for the other.

example of how the stroke weight align itself to the center

Now, even though the shape has the exact same width as the previous outline created using the offset method, if we check the Transform Panel we will see that its Width value is actually smaller, since Illustrator indicates the size of the actual path, and not the object. If we expanded the path and turned it into a shape, it would have the exact same values as the one created using the first method, since Illustrator would consider those 2 px from each side (68+4=72).

Compared to the previous method where you had to leave a gap that had the exact same value as the line’s thickness, this time you’ll have to position the shape so that its path (which is usually represented by the color of the layer) leaves a gap of just 2 px between the grid’s top and bottom sections.

Quick Tip: depending on the Weight of your Stroke¸ you will always have to make sure that when you’re designing the icon on the grid, you leave a gap that has a value of half of the path’s Stroke Weight, since when drawing the shapes by clicking and dragging, Illustrator doesn’t count the number of pixels that go outside the path indicator line. So you’ll have to make sure to keep that in mind, and draw by leaving a small gap where the sides of your path meet the borders of the actual grid, so that your design will fit inside that space.

example of how to position the document icon outline using the stroke method

Once we have our document’s outline, we can select the Pen Tool (P) and start adding the 4 px thick text lines to finish off the icon.

adding the line details to the document icon using the stroke method

Now that we’ve seen how to create the naked lines icon, let’s take a look at the process of creating line icons with fill shapes using the same method.

Creating Line Icons With Fill Shapes Using Strokes

Well, the process for creating this sort of icon is pretty much the same as the one for the naked lines. The only difference is that you’ll have to create a duplicate of your main outline, and turn it into a fill shape by swapping its stroke color with its fill.

So, let’s start by creating the main outline by drawing a 68 x 92 px shape with a Corner Radius of 6 px. If you’re feeling lazy, you can simply create a copy of the one we already have, since it should speed things up a bit.

Once we have the shape positioned over the grid, we need to create a copy of it (Control-C > Control-F) and then flip its stroke with its fill by pressing Shift-X. Then simply change its color using the same dark grey as before, making sure to send it to the back using the Arrange > Send to Back option. Finally add the little text lines and you’re good to go.

creating the fill colored line icon using the strokes method

3. Comparing the Two Methods

At this point, we’ve gone over each of the two methods that we can use in order to create line icons. As I promised at the beginning of this article, I am now going to briefly talk about the advantages and disadvantages of using one method over the other, so that in the end, you can decide for yourself which one suits you best.

3.1. The Offset Path Method

Advantages of Using the Offset Path Method

No matter the type of line icon you’re creating, the Offset Path method can easily be your “go to” tool, and no I’m not just saying because I use it on a daily basis. I’m saying it because there are several things that really make it stand out:

  • First, the method is really fast, and straightforward, so as soon as you pick up the process you can create nice-looking, detailed icons in no time.
  • It uses shapes instead of paths, which for some clients that don’t know how to use Illustrator might be easier to edit and work with.
  • It handles the resizing process a lot better when the icons are created without pixel perfection in mind.
  • It gives you a better control over the positioning and spacing of your objects.
  • If your icons aren’t designed using a pixel-perfect workflow, it’s easier to see and fix visual glitches where two lines don’t overlap perfectly.
  • For some, using the Offset Path method allows them to select their shapes more easily, since they don’t need to drag or click on the center of the line in order to make the selection.
  • Used in combination with the Pixel Preview mode, I found it to be a lot easier to create my shapes, since I didn’t have to check if my stroke weight was consistent.
  • It provides an easier process of coloring the icons, using the Eyedropper Tool (I).
  • It’s easier to add details since the offsets get positioned under the original shape, which means that you don’t have to send them to the back manually each time—you just create the offset and then assign it a color.
  • It handles odd-numbered values better, since the shapes perfectly snap to the Pixel Grid if the option is enabled.
  • It plays really well with Clipping Mask.

Disadvantages of Using the Offset Path Method

As with any tool, the Offset Path has a couple of disadvantages that for some could be a deal-breaker:

  • The biggest one is probably the way the outlines behave when used on colored line icons, where the larger shapes acting as lines tend to go outside, and not over the main colored shape, which results in a slightly different look from the ones created using strokes.
  • There will be situations where your offset might get broken due to the shape of the main object that you will be using as a cutout. This is mainly due to the fact that offsets are outward-facing paths, where strokes are usually aligned to the center.
  • It’s not always the best fit when it comes to creating elaborate icons with more organic lines, since the process of using basic shapes has its limits.
  • If, for some reason, you have to adjust the thickness of your lines, you’re going to have to go through a long process of deleting and recreating most of your lines.

3.2. The Strokes Method

Advantages of Using the Strokes Method

Even if the Offset Path is a great tool, that doesn’t mean the Strokes method can’t be a viable alternative. There are a couple of advantages that you should be aware of before deciding if this method is right for you:

  • It might not be the fastest of the bunch, but once you get the hang of it, the process of creating icons using it is really easy and enjoyable. At some times you might feel it’s more creative since you’re dealing with paths and not shapes.
  • It’s probably the only method that allows you to easily edit the Weight of the lines on the fly by simply adjusting the Stroke levels.
  • It forces you to get down and dirty with the Pen Tool (P), which in the end will improve the way you handle it.
  • Compared to the Offset Path method, you can easily create round endings since the Stroke panel gives you the ability of using Round Caps.

Disadvantages of Using the Strokes Method

Now that we’ve seen the good parts, let’s take a couple of seconds and talk about the bad ones:

  • First, it’s way harder to take control of your lines, since the selection process is rather difficult.
  • Depending on the way the designer built the icons, it can be harder to resize.
  • Coloring the different elements can get annoying really fast if you don’t know how to work with the Live Paint Bucket (K).
  • Moving things around on the Artboard can sometimes break some parts of the lines.
  • They don’t handle odd-numbered values all that well, since the Stroke is usually aligned to the Inside, which means that the anchor points won’t snap to the Pixel Grid, making it harder to create organic lines.
  • Icons created using Strokes can prove to be a challenge for those who are trying to edit or adjust them.
  • If you’re not using a pixel-perfect foundation, overlapping lines could break your design.
  • Sometimes you might end up with loose anchors, which could break the look of the shape it’s part of.
  • It doesn’t work all that well with clipping masks, since you’ll need to create new fill shapes in order to hide the different sections that otherwise would still be visible.

It’s a Wrap!

So there you have it, a quick but in-depth comparison of two awesome methods for creating line icons that should point out which one suits your workflow best.

As always, I hope you’ve learned something new, and if you have any questions or you just want share some of your knowledge, post your comment in the section below and I'll get back to you as soon as I can!

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