For beginners, crisp icons can be hard to make in Adobe Illustrator. With a few simple tricks, the Appearance Panel and the Shape Builder Tool, you will be creating professional looking icons in no time, it's easy!
First create a New Document in the scale of your icon, common sizes are 96px, 48px, 32px, 24px and 16px. For this tutorial I will be creating a 48 x 48px sized icon. Set the Color Mode to RGB, the Raster Effects to 72ppi and the Units to Pixels.
We will now set the grid to pixels, this will make it easier to plan the design. Go to Preferences > Guides and Grids and set the Gridline to be 10px with 10 subdivisions then go to View > Show Grid then View > Snap to Grid.
With all of my icons (apart from the very basic ones) I like to make a quick thumbnail sketch as a base for my design. You can sketch with pen and paper or you can sketch into Illustrator or Photoshop. I made my sketch in Photoshop then copy and pasted it onto the artboard in Illustrator.
Once the sketch is on the artboard I can scale it, position it and then reduce the opacity to 50%. If you're using a sketch, reduce the opacity to 50% (or more if the sketch is a bit too dark) then lock the layer and make a new layer under the sketch layer, this will be your artwork layer.
With any complex shape, you can break it down into basic shapes. For this design I have traced the head using the Ellipse Tool (L) then moved and rotated the shapes into position with the Selection Tool (V).
When the basic shapes are in the approximate position, take the Shape Builder Tool (Shift + M) and merge them together by dragging the cursor over the shapes.
If you need to make subtle curves, take the Pen Tool (P) and draw in the basic shape. Make a point at the middle of each curve, this is where the lines will be smoothed.
To make smooth curves from points, take the Convert Anchor Point Tool (Shift+ C) and drag the point while holding down the Shift Key.
To make symmetry easier, use the Reflect Tool (O). To reflect a shape, first select it with the Selection Tool (V) then select the Reflect Tool (O) and Option + Click on the artboard where the shape will reflect, you should now see a settings box.
Set the axis to the way you want to reflect the shape (my image is reflected vertically) and click Copy. You will now have a reflected copy of your shape.
Combine the shapes with the Shape Builder Tool (Shift + M) and smooth any points with the Convert Anchor Point Tool (Shift+ C).
Here's the fun part. There's a trick you can use to preview your icon while you're working. First, go to Window > New Window. This will create a copy of the document you're working on.
Once you've made the new window, Hide the Grid. In the "View" menu, set the window to Actual Size, Hide Artboards and select Pixel Preview. You will now have an almost perfect preview of your finished icon.
The best thing about working with the second window is that anything you change in the first window will also change in the second window.
To make a button behind the icon, select the Rounded Rectangle Tool and Option + Click onto the artboard, this will bring up a settings menu. Set the Width and Height to a few pixels less than your final icon size, this will give you room to add any drop shadows or effects later. The corner radius will be different depending on the size of the icon you're creating, I've chosen to use 6px because my icon is fairly small.
Once you have created the rounded rectangle, select it and move it behind the icon design by pressing Command + the Left Square Bracket Key.
To make a soft gradient for the rounded rectangle, fill the shape using the Gradient Tool (G) and change the bottom swatch in the gradient to be a mid gray, change the top swatch to a very light gray and then just under the top swatch, click on the gradient to add a third swatch. Change the third swatch to be a slightly darker shade of the second gray
To add an outline, go to the Appearance Panel (Window > Appearance) and with the rounded rectangle selected, click on the stroke option, set the color to be a mid gray (slightly darker than the darkest shade) and set the weight to 1px.
Now we will add a gradient outline to the icon shape and save the button and the icon styles for future designs. First, the easiest way to make a gradient outline on a shape is to create an offset path. To do this, select the shape, then in the Appearance Panel (Window > Appearance) add a new fill above the first fill. Make this a slightly darker version of your first gradient.
As you can see in the example image below, I've used a dark radial gradient for the inside of the shape (top gradient) and a lighter version for the outline (bottom gradient). Both fills can be altered by selecting the fill in the Appearance Panel and changing the settings with the Gradient Panel (Window > Gradient) and the Gradient Tool (G).
Select the top gradient in the Appearance Panel and go to the Fx button at the bottom of the panel. Navigate to Path > Offset Path and set the Offset to -1px with Round Joins and click OK.
To save an appearance as a swatch, go to the Appearance Panel and drag the icon at the top of the panel into the Graphic Styles Panel (Window > Graphic Styles).
You will now have two graphic styles that can be applied to many different shapes and buttons to create a quick set of basic icons. See what you can come up with, and feel free to share your work on the Vectortuts+ Facebook Page.
If you enjoyed this tutorial, you may like "How to Make a Reusable Icon Style using the Appearance Panel".