1. Design & Illustration
  2. Case Study

Illustrating a Series of Application Icons

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Infinite Skills is a software company that develops learning materials for people to enhance their knowledge of a variety of applications, from industry software to commonplace word processing programs. Infinite Skills approached me to create a series of application icons that will accompany their software. Needless to say, with my insatiable appetite for icon design and branding it was game on!


The project needed to be assessed to determine the correct approach. Since launching these apps onto the iTunes store was a new venture for them, they had no existing icon design parameters that I needed to stay within. I took this opportunity to really dissect the problem and arrive at the best possible solution.

First, and most important, I needed to decide what the unifying items throughout the icon campaign would be. I knew they would need to work as a family, but still be different enough so that the viewer would recognize them quickly as different software titles.

Through open lines of communication it was established that there would be a laundry list of software titles (what you see below is only a partial list.) I had the client send me the anticipated titles so that I could better gauge the propensity for icons sharing similarities over the course of the creation of all the icons.

After much consideration, sketching and deliberation I decided there would be four core items that would distinguish each of the icons: letter, color, enhancing graphic and background.


Each of the icons would be primarily recognized by a large letter. I used a sans serif and bold font so that the icon would not feel flimsy or too airy. The letter is turned on an angle to display a more dynamic look.


Since several items start with the letter "F", for example, the color further helps distinguish a duplicate letter from another application. Adobe Flash and Apple Final Cut Pro are prime examples.

Enhancing Graphic

Each of the icons would also receive an enhancing graphic that denotes what the software title will teach you. Where software titles were more generic I used a generic enhancing graphic too.


The background texture is a subtle difference that is not intended to be noticed upon first glance. When possible, each background texture takes direction from the software. In Final Cut Pro the background consists of stars that coincides with film, camera, movies, etc.

After I decided on what the differentiating items would be I moved on to working up wireframes for each of the icons. I wanted to provide myself with the best opportunity to harmonize the icons, with this in mind I worked on several wireframes at once.

This made it very clear regarding items that needed to be finessed in order to work more closely as a unit. Typically working on two or three icons at once provided a good foundation to determine similarity. In addition, as icons were finished I always referred to them so that I would be certain to keep even the smallest details consistent.

Since the letters per icon varied I had to be creative and flexible regarding the accompanying graphics. Sometimes a letter was really wide and other times letters were really tall. To compensate for that difference I implemented two types of graphics. Long and skinny items would run on an angle from upper left to lower right. If a corresponding item wasn't thin and flat I drew it in more of a square shape and placed it in front of the letter. It was important to note the usage of each of these occurrences so that one wasn't used excessively over the other.

Illustrating Objects Whose Sizes are Dramatically Different

When creating an icon series it's important to ensure that the icons look like they belong together. There are many factors that affect the successful execution of this including: topic, orientation, and surface, to name a few.

Many times there are parameters that need to be worked around. A parameter that I encountered during this project was that the client wanted to use a building in the AutoCad icon and a camera in the Photoshop for Photographers icon. As you're very well aware, a building differs in detail from something as small as a camera.

For Photoshop for Photographers I drew much of the detail you would see in a camera. Of course somewhat distilled down considering the fact that the resulting piece is an icon. Contrast that with a building. In order to incorporate the building I needed to illustrate it in such a way that it possessed enough detail to read as a building even though the scale is much smaller. Having said that, I stripped the building down to the core elements that needed to be included in order for it to be recognized as such — windows, rooftop items, and trim were the essentials that would remain.

Creating Subsets or Specialized Versions of Certain Icons

Infinite Skills knew they would produce content for specific segments within a user group. For example, they have a software title that's more general and is geared toward Photoshop users. They also have created another version that's specifically for photographers. Typically, versioning is denoted by a snipe (words written on an angle across the edge of something) but in this case the client preferred an entirely new corresponding graphic—a camera.

Achieving Similarity While Maintaining Interest

It goes without saying that the icons must come across as a unit. However, it's also important that the viewer does not lose interest in viewing the items because they become bored with their execution. With this in mind I made a point to create the illusion of different surfaces on each of the accompanying items when compared with the letter it was next to.

There is no hard and fast rule that icons need to be approached in this way, rather, that was more of an artistic license that I exercised. In some cases it's just illogical to create the illusion of a different surface, such as in the Microsoft Excel icon where one would expect a bar chart to be reflective, but on the Adobe Illustrator icon you will observe that the pen has a dull plastic look while the "I" has a very reflective look. This infuses a little more interest and helps display the object in a more realistic light.

Series Review of Icons to Date

Time Lapse

While each icon takes several hours from start to finish I've provided an even greater glimpse into the creation of a portion of one of the icons. I hope you've enjoyed reading about my process and will take some of the information you've found helpful and apply it to your own projects.

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