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Design

The Do's and Don'ts of Creating Line Icons

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Final product image
What You'll Be Creating

In today’s tutorial we’re going to take an in-depth look at the process of creating line icons both in Adobe Illustrator and Affinity Designer. You'll see how you can craft a usable finished product using a few basic shapes that we will adjust here and there.

So, if you always wanted to know the do’s and don’ts when working on this style of icons, you should definitely give this piece a read!

Also, don't forget you can always expand your asset library by heading over to GraphicRiver, where you'll find a great selection of vector icon packs to pick from.

A few years ago, I explored the main two methods that can be used to create line icons, and compared them in order to see which one would be a better fit for you.

Today, we’re going to expand on one of those methods, more exactly the Stroke one, and talk about the do’s and don’ts so that you can perfect your skills when it comes to creating these types of icons.

We’re going to be creating exactly the same icon using two different pieces of software, more precisely Adobe Illustrator and Affinity Designer, so that everybody can partake in the project.

That being said, let’s get started!

How to Create Line Icons in Adobe Illustrator

1. How to Set Up a New Project File 

As with any new project, we’re going to kick things off by quickly going through the process of setting up a New Document. So go over to File > New (or use the Control-N keyboard shortcut), and then adjust it as follows:

  • Profile: Web
  • Number of Artboards: 1
  • Width: 128 px
  • Height: 128 px
  • Units: Pixels

And from the Advanced tab:

  • Color Mode: RGB
  • Raster Effects: Screen (72 ppi)
  • Preview Mode: Default
setting up a new document in ai

2. How to Set Up the Layers

Once we’ve created our document, we need to take a couple of moments and structure the project using a couple of layers, so that we can implement and maintain a clear and steady workflow by separating our reference grid from the actual icon.

To do this, simply open up the Layers panel and then create two layers using the Create New Layer button, naming them as follows:

  • bottom layer: reference grid
  • top layer: icon
setting up the layers in ai

3. How to Create the Reference Grid

As soon as we’ve finished layering our document, we can focus on building the reference grid, which will help us define the actual size of the final icon, while allowing us to add a small protective padding.

Step 1

Select the bottom layer, and then create the main reference surface (the base size) using a 128 x 128 px square, which we will color using #F15A24 and then position in the center of the underlying Artboard using the Align panel’s Horizontal and Vertical Align Center options.

creating the base grid in ai

Step 2

Add the active drawing area using a smaller 112 x 112 px square, which we will color using white (#FFFFFF) and then center align to the larger underlying one, which will result in an all-around 8 px padding.

creating the active drawing area in ai

Step 3

Once you have both shapes in place, select and group them together using the Control-G keyboard shortcut, making sure to lock the current layer before moving on to the next step.

locking the layers in ai

4. How to Create the Newspaper Icon

As soon as we’ve finished setting up our project file, we can begin working on the actual icon, which we will gradually create one section at a time.

Step 1

Grab the Ellipse Tool (L) and create the background using a 112 x 112 px circle, which we will color using #AEEDEA and then center align to the underlying Artboard.

creating the background in ai

Step 2

Create the main shape for the front section of the newspaper using a 40 x 44 px rectangle, which we will color using #FFFFFF and then position at a distance of 30 px from the active drawing area’s left edge and 34 px from its top one.

As you may have noticed, even though the gap values are even numbers (since they can be divided by two), they can only be cut in half once before becoming odd. Normally I try to stay away from these types of numbers, but since we’re creating line icons, that’s something that’s going to be fixed as soon as we add the actual outlines, as you'll see in a few moments.

creating the front section in ai

Step 3

Adjust the shape that we’ve just created by setting the Radius of its bottom-left corner to 6 px from within the Transform panel’s Rectangle Properties. Again, I’ve gone with a weird number value, but all will make sense as soon as we add the outline.

adjusting the corner of the front section in ai

Step 4

Create a copy (Control-C > Control-F) of the resulting shape, which we will position on its right side so that their paths end up overlapping as seen in the reference image.

creating a duplicate of the front section in ai

Step 5

Open up the two paths by individually selecting each of their right anchor points using the Direct Selection Tool (A), and then immediately removing them by pressing Delete.

opening up the paths of the front section in ai

Step 6

With the two paths still selected, unite them into a single larger shape by pressing the Control-J (join) keyboard shortcut twice.

uniting the path segments in ai

Step 7

Now that we’ve finished adjusting the main shape for the front section, we can go about adding the outline. This part is actually more important than you might think, since the thickness of the Stroke will end up directly influencing the surrounding gap values, as well as the visible section of the corner radius, as you'll see in the following moments.

As a general rule, you always want to go with an even numeric value (e.g. 2, 4, 68, etc.), since we’re going to align the Stroke to the center. By doing so, we will ensure that our shapes will remain perfectly snapped to the underlying Pixel Grid, since the alignment will end up equally splitting their Weight in half.

To add the actual outline, start by creating a copy (Control-C) of the resulting shape, which we will paste in front (Control-F) and then adjust by changing its color to #43435B. Once you’re done, flip its Fill with its Stroke using the Shift-X keyboard shortcut, and then open up the Stroke panel and set its Weight to 4 px, making sure that the Stroke is aligned to the center.

Since half of the outline will end up falling outside of the fill shape’s path, this will in effect decrease the gap values by 2 px, making the rounded corners look less rounded.

adding the outline to the front section in ai

If we were to use odd numbers (e.g. 3579, etc.), our Stroke would end up being subjected to some nasty antialiasing, which is clearly visible when you turn on Pixel Preview mode (Alt-Control-Y). This happens since the software can't find a perfect center, due to the fact that once divided in half, odd numbers become decimal ones.

example of stroke using odd numbers

To make matters even worse, if you try and use the Make Pixel Perfect option (right click > Make Pixel Perfect), the stroke's path will end up snapping off the Pixel Grid due to that center alignment.

using the make pixel perfect option on odd strokes

Step 8

Since we want the icon to feel all around more friendly, we’re going to set all of its StrokesCorners to Round Join, which is a neat little trick that helps you do just that. In the case of the current shape, this also fixes the appearance of the bottom-right anchor point, which would otherwise look as if it was mistakenly chopped.

setting the corner join to round in ai

Step 9

As soon as we’ve finished making all the little adjustments to the outline, we need to select both it and the underlying fill shape and then group them together using either the Control-G keyboard shortcut or the slightly slower right click > Group method. 

I usually end up grouping my fill shapes and outlines together since if I later on decide to move one of them, the other will automatically follow it. Also, if you ever need to make adjustments to either of the two, you can easily do so by isolating the group and carrying them out.

grouping the main shapes of the front section in ai

Step 10

Create the main shape for the side section using a 12 x 36 px rectangle, which we will color using #59C9C9 and then position onto the right side of the shapes that we’ve just grouped, making sure that their paths overlap. The overlapping part is really important, since it helps ensure that when you add all the outlines, they perfectly cover each other, without adding to the thickness of the final design.

creating the main shape for the side section in ai

Step 11

Adjust the shape that we’ve just created by setting the Radius of its bottom corners to 6 px, which is the same value used for the front section. When working on line icons, consistency plays a key factor when it comes to the perfect overlapping of your paths, so always keep an eye on your values, so that you won’t have to come back and fix them later on.

adjusting the shape of the side section in ai

Step 12

Add the subtle shadow using a 6 x 36 px square, which we will position on the left side of the current section, coloring it using the same value used for the outline (#43435B) and making sure to lower its Opacity to 24%. This is another little trick that I like to use a lot, where instead of picking darker values for the shadows, I simply sample the color of the strokes and then lower their Opacity until I get something that works.

adding the shadow to the side section in ai

Step 13

Mask the shadow using a copy (Control-C) of the larger underlying shape, which we will paste in front, and then with both of them selected, simply right click > Make Clipping Mask.

masking the shadow in ai

Step 14

As soon as you’ve masked the shadow, you can go ahead and give the current section a 4 px thick outline by creating a copy (Control-C > Control-F) of it, and then sampling the existing outline using the Eyedropper Tool (I)

This is another little trick that I use all the time, since it helps me copy all the existing attributes of my outline (color, weight) to my current shape. Beyond that, it also ensures that the color value being used is all-around consistent, which is really important when designing line icons, since when adding volume you do so using darker colors for the fill shapes but not their outlines.

adding the outline to the side section in ai

Quick tip: here’s a quick picture of what would happen if you did some of the things that I’ve argued against (improper path overlapping, inconsistent corner radius for the overlapping shapes, different color values for the outlines).

example of bad shape overlapping in ai

Step 15

Move on back to the front section of the newspaper, and let’s start adding its little details by creating the photo box using a 12 x 12 px rounded rectangle with a 2 px Corner Radius, which we will color using #43435B and then position at a distance of 4 px from the front outline’s right edge and 8 px from its top one.

positioning the main shape for the photo in ai

At this point, you may be wondering why I didn’t include those 2 px from the outline in the indicated spacing values, and the answer is that since in this case we can’t distribute the shapes using the Align panel, those values are irrelevant. Whenever we position shapes inside of an outline, we will always do so in relation to its Weight’s inner edge, thus ignoring its inner half.

If we were to position the shapes outside of the outline’s surface, then we would need to add them to the final distance, since the software will always position them in relation to the outline’s path, which is aligned to the center.

example of positioning shapes inside an outline in ai

Step 16

Create the first of the dummy text lines using an 8 px wide 4 px thick Stroke (#43435B) with a Round Cap, which we will position in line with the picture’s top edge, at a distance of 4 px from its left one.

As you can see, I went with stroke lines instead of rounded rectangles, which is something that I try to do all the time when their thickness is identical to that of the outlines, since if I ever need to change their color, I can easily target them using Select > Same > Stroke Color.

positioning the first text line in ai

Notice that I used the word “position” instead of “align”, since if we were to use the Align panel’s Vertical Align Top option, the software would do the alignment to the indicated key object based on the center of the stroke, which would produce quite a different result.

example of stroke aligning in ai

Step 17

Add the second text line using a copy (Control-C > Control-F) of the one that we’ve just created, which we will position just 4 px below it. 

This is a great example of stroke positioning, since we have two ways of doing it. The first one relies on using the directional arrow keys to gradually move the stroke one pixel at a time, until we have it in the desired position.

adding the second text line in ai

The second one involves using the Align panel’s Vertical Distribute Spacing option, which requires you to adjust the spacing value, since you need to include the bottom and top halves of the two strokes’ Weight. So instead of using a value of 4 px, you’ll end up using 8 px (2 + 4 + 2). Personally, I recommend you stick to the first method when it comes to smaller distances, and use the Align panel when dealing with bigger ones, which to be honest doesn’t happen all that often.

example of multiple stroke aligning in ai

Step 18

Create the wider text line, using a copy (Control-C > Control-F) of the one from the previous step, which we will position 4 px below it and then adjust by increasing its Width from 8 px to 24 px. To do this, open up the Transform panel and first uncheck the Scale Strokes & Effects option, since it will otherwise increase the Weight of the Stroke as you adjust it. Then, set the Reference Point to the left square and simply enter the indicated value (24 px) within the W(idth) input field.

example of increasing of the length of a stroke in ai

Step 19

Add the final text line using a copy (Control-C > Control-F) of the one that we’ve adjusted, which we will position below using the same 4 px distance. Once you have all the lines in place, make sure you select and group (Control-G) them together, doing the same for the entire newspaper afterwards.

adding the last text line in ai

Step 20

Finish off the icon by adding the little motion lines using an 8 px tall 4 px thick Stroke (#43435B) for the center one, and two shorter 4 px ones for the sides, positioning them as seen in the reference image. Take your time, and once you’re done, don’t forget to select and group (Control-G) all of them together, doing the same for all of its composing shapes afterwards.

finishing off the icon in ai

How to Create Line Icons in Affinity Designer

Now that we have a better idea when it comes to the do’s and don’ts of creating line icons, let’s see how we can build the same product in Affinity Designer.

1. How to Set Up a New Project File

As we did with Illustrator, we’re going to start by creating a New Document by heading over to File > New (or by using the Control-N keyboard shortcut), which we will adjust as follows:

  • Type: Web
  • Document Units: Pixels
  • Create artboard: checked
  • Transparent Background: checked
  • Page Width: 128 px
  • Page Height: 128 px
  • DPI: 72
setting up a new document in ad

2. How to Set Up the Layers

Take a couple of moments and structure the project file by opening up the Layers panel and then creating two layers using the Add Layer button, naming them as follows:

  • bottom layer: reference grid
  • top layer: icon
setting up the layers in ad

3. How to Create the Reference Grid

Once we’ve finished layering our document, we can move on to building the little reference grid.

Step 1

Start by selecting the bottom layer and then creating the main reference surface (the base size) using a 128 x 128 px square, which we will color using #F15A24 and then position in the center of the underlying Artboard, using the Alignment panel’s Align Center and Align Middle options.

creating the base grid in ad

Step 2

Add the active drawing area using a smaller 112 x 112 px square, which we will color using white (#FFFFFF) and then center align to the main reference surface, which will give us the same 8 px protective padding.

adding the active drawing area in ad

Step 3

With both shapes in place, make sure you select and group them together using the Control-G keyboard shortcut, locking the current layer using the little Lock/Unlock toggle, before moving on to the next one.

locking the layers in ad

4. How to Create the Newspaper Icon

Position yourself on the top layer, and let’s begin working on our little newspaper icon.

Step 1

Start by creating the background using a 112 x 112 px circle, which we will color using #AEEDEA and then center align to the underlying Artboard.

creating the background in ad

Step 2

Add the main shape for the newspaper’s front section using a 40 x 44 px rectangle, which we will color using white (#FFFFFF) and then position at a distance of 30 px from the active drawing area’s left edge and 34 px from its top one.

creating the main shape for the front section in ad

Step 3

Adjust the shape by first unchecking the Single Radius option, and then setting its bottom-left corner (BL) to Rounded, making sure to give it an absolute value of 6 px.

adjusting the corner of the front section in ad

Step 4

Create a copy (Control-C > Control-V) of the resulting shape, which we will then position on the right side of the active drawing area, so that their paths end up overlapping.

creating a duplicate of the front section in ad

Step 5

With both shapes selected, use the Convert to Curves option so that we can adjust their paths, and then individually open them up by selecting their top right nodes using the Node Tool (A) and then the Break Curve action. Once you’ve opened up their paths, make sure you select and remove all of their right nodes using the Delete key.

opening up the paths of the front section in ad

Step 6

Unite the resulting path segments into a single larger shape using the Node Tool’s Join curves and Close curve actions.

uniting the paths of the front section in ad

Step 7

Give the resulting shape an outline using the Stroke method, by creating a copy (Control-C) of it, which we will paste in front (Control-V) and then adjust by first changing its color to #43435B and then flipping its Fill with its Stroke (Shift-X), setting its Width to 4 pt. Once you’re done, make sure you select and group the two together using the Control-G keyboard shortcut.

adding the outline to the front section in ad

Quick tip: compared to Illustrator, where you have to set the Stroke’s Join to Round manually, Affinity Designer does it automatically since it’s the default option used.

Step 8

Create the main shape for the newspaper’s side section using a 12 x 36 px rectangle (#59C9C9), which we will adjust by setting the radius of its bottom corners to 6 px, positioning the resulting shape on the right side of the front section, making sure their paths perfectly overlap.

creating the main shape for the side section in ad

Step 9

Add the subtle shadow using a 6 x 36 px square (#43435B), which we will position on the left side of the current section, making sure to lower its Opacity to 24%.

adding the shadow to the side section in ad

Step 10

Mask the shadow by opening up the Layers panel and first adding a copy (Control-C) of the side section’s fill shape to the Clipboard, and then simply dragging the smaller shape on top of it.

masking the shadow in ad

Step 11

Add the outline by pasting the copy from the Clipboard in place using the Control-V keyboard shortcut, and then changing its color to #43435B and flipping its Fill with its Stroke (Shift-X), making sure to set its Width to 4 pt. Once you’re done, don’t forget to select and group (Control-G) all of the side section’s composing shapes before moving on to the next step.

adding the outline to the side section in ad

Step 12

Shift your focus back to the newspaper’s front section, and create the photo box using a 12 x 12 px rounded rectangle (#43435B) with a 2 px Corner Radius, which we will position at a distance of 4 px from the larger outline’s right edge and 8 px from its top one.

positioning the main shape for the photo in ad

Step 13

Add the first text line using an 8 px wide 4 pt thick Stroke (#43435B), which we will position in line with the photo's top edge, at a distance of 4 px from its left one.

positioning the first text line in ad

Step 14

Create the second text line using a copy (Control-C > Control-V) of the one from the previous step, which we will position 4 px below it.

adding the second text line in ad

Step 15

Add the wider text line, using a copy (Control-C > Control-V) of the one that we’ve just created, which we will position 4 px below and then adjust by increasing its Width to 24 px. To do this, open up the Transform panel, and first make sure the adjustments are made in relation to its left anchor point by clicking on the Anchor point selector’s left box, and then simply entering the indicated value (24 px) within the W(idth) input field.

example of increasing the length of a stroke in ad

Step 16

Create the final text line using a copy (Control-C > Control-V) of the one that we’ve just adjusted, making sure to position it below using the same 4 px distance. Once you have all the lines in place, make sure you select and group (Control-G) all of them together, doing the same for the entire newspaper afterwards.

adding the last text line in ad

Step 17

Finish off the icon by adding the little motion lines using an 8 px tall 4 pt thick Stroke (#43435B) for the center one and two shorter 4 px ones for the sides, positioning them as seen in the reference image. Take your time, and once you’re done, don’t forget to select and group (Control-G) all of them together, doing the same for all of its composing shapes afterwards.

finishing off the icon in ad

Recap

Before I ride off into the sunset, I wanted to do a little recap of the key points that we've learned when it comes to creating stroke-based line icons, in case some of you want to skip the whole project part.

The Do's:

  • When you start laying out your icon's different composing shapes, always do the math and make sure you include the value of their outlines (their strokes) when doing so, since it will help you figure out key aspects in regards to their position in relation to the Artboard and one another. 
  • When choosing a weight for your stroke, always try to go with even numbers (e.g. 2, 4, 6, 8, etc.) instead of odd ones (e.g. 3, 5, 7, 9, etc.), since otherwise your outlines will end up being snapped off the Pixel Grid.
  • When positioning your shapes, always make sure that their paths perfectly overlap, especially if you're dealing with objects that have rounded corners or more organic lines.
  • When adding an outline to a shape, make sure you select and group them together so that they will behave as a single unit, which makes its easier to reposition them if you need to later on.
  • As you start building your icon, always make sure you maintain the same color value and weight across all of your strokes in order to achieve consistency.
  • When positioning shapes inside of an outline, always do so from its stroke's inner edges and not its center.
  • When aligning stroke-based objects to non-stroke-based ones, always make sure to adjust their final position if you've used the align panel, since the software will always make the alignment based on the stroke's center, and not its outer edges.
  • When positioning multiple stroke-based objects in relation to one another, always do the math and include the values of their top and/or bottom halves when using the align panel, otherwise you won't get the desired result.

The Don'ts:

  • When it comes to the don'ts, they're pretty much the exact opposites of the bullet items from the previous list, so as long as you keep those key notions in mind, you should be good to go.

As always, I really hope you had fun working on the project and most importantly managed to learn a thing or two during the process.

That being said, if you have any questions, feel free to post them within the comments section and I’ll get back to you as soon as I can!

finished project preview

Expand Your Icon-Building Skills!

Want to learn more about creating icons? Well, we took the liberty of hand-picking some awesome tutorials that should help you do just that!

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