Apart from your musical or sports heroes or religious images, in graphic design and desktop publishing an icon is a type of illustrative clip art.
Icons are graphic images or symbols that represent an object, an action, or an idea. A stylized pencil, perhaps just the pencil tip, may symbolize an actual pencil (object) or writing (action). An image of a green leaf could represent plants (object) or nature or Springtime (idea). In a book, tips or extra notes might be set apart with a lightbulb icon (tip, good idea) or a stylized bomb or firecracker (warning).
A logo often uses some type of icon.
"A logo may be a logotype or wordmark, an abstract or literal graphic mark, or a combination of words and images."
Icons are often present in software and Web pages. An icon of a wrench may be a graphic representation for the software settings. Click the wrench to access a menu of user-controlled options. A stylized house button on a Web page is almost universally understood to represent the home (main) page of the site. Click on the icon to go to the home page from any other page of the site. Another type of icon associated with Web pages is the favicon or favorites icon.
Icons come in many styles from simple shapes to stylized objects to almost photorealistic illustrations. Dingbat fonts are typically made up of various styles of iconic images.
In addition to logos and Web page navigation, icons may appear in print documents as:
- End signs used to mark the end of a story in a newsletter or magazine.
- Bullets used to call attention to lines of text such as in a list.
- Part of a rebus, a type of picture puzzle.
- As part of a newsletter nameplate identifying the publication.
- As part of a pictograph, a type of chart or graph.
- As symbols on a map to represent man-made and natural features.
How to Create IconsYou can use almost any graphics software to create and edit images (and dingbat fonts) to use as icons in your design projects. To create icons for your Mac or PC, you might want to try Icon & Cursor Editors for Mac or Windows.
Two general guidelines for creating or choosing icons are:
- Keep it simple. Icons are usually used at small sizes. Too much detail can clutter the image, not print clearly, and make the icon hard to decipher.
- Be consistent. When using a set of icons keep them consistent in style. You can also use shape and color to create a unified look.
For detailed tips and tutorials on the actual icon design, see these resources:
- 7 Principles of Effective Icon Design
"Start the icon design process with research. Consider the common symbolic metaphor used to describe the icon you’re looking to make. Sketch as much as necessary to lock down the concept. Compliment the style of the icon designs with the Web site design you’ll be using them on. Consider the color, perspective, and graphic look of the site."
- What Makes a Good Icon rounds up some comments on icon design by icon designers.
- 10 Tips For Effective Icon Design
"Translating the ‘iconic’ features of an object into something that is metaphorically meaningful and instantly recognizable is no easy task — particularly when the design needs to be as effective at 48×48 pixels as it is at 256×256!"
- 10 Mistakes in Icon Design focuses on software icons but the suggestions apply to any type of icon use.
- 50 Excellent Icon Design Tutorials includes most of the above and many, many more.