Iconic: What Makes a Great iPad App Icon?

Following on from the roundup last week of beautifully designed iPad app icons I’m going to have an opinionated look at what can make, or break, an app icon.

Why are you writing about icons, you say, surely it hardly matters what an app’s icon looks like? If these were questions that sprung to mind when you read the heading, then think again!

Icons are very very important.

First Impressions

As anyone who’s been on a blind date, or just a job interview for that matter, can tell you how vastly important first impressions are. They set our mind on a course and shape all our further thinking about that person or thing – changing them is much harder than getting it right first time!

Blogsy, Things, and Pages

An app often only gets two chances to make a first impression, first with the icon, and second with the name. However callous it sounds, I have often overlooked apps or failed to go any further after seeing the icon and reading the name – you have, at best, a couple of seconds to capture someones imagination or interest. The App Store contains more than 350,000 apps, if you deserve the attention of potential users then you have to grab it – design your icon!

Ben Brooks has written a rather entertaining, enlightening, and provocatively named article on “Why Your App Name is Dumb” that makes some great points about app names and icons – I’ll reference it here as some of my points derive their inspiration from his exposition.


The most frustrating thing for me when reviewing or playing with a new app is the disappointment I feel when I first see the icon and it’s patently clear the developer left that until last. This is easy to spot. The icon looks ugly and ill thought out, as if they thought it’ll be fine to just rustle something up in paint…

It’s not fine.

Omnifocus, djay, and Fontcase Viewer

I’ll make a brief concessionary note here, I don’t have an app. I do understand that names and icons are difficult things and in some ways I’m not in a position to comment, in other ways, however, I’m in the perfect position to comment. I use apps, and often go through the App Store looking for inviting or intriguing propositions – this article is simply an opinion-based series of thoughts on what catches my eye and what makes me reel in disgust.

My other concession is that I understand. I understand that developers, those with brilliant ideas and the skills to implement them in the form of an app, are not necessarily designers (although some are). That’s fine, but design is an important part of making any successful app.

Hire a designer.

What Makes a Great iPad App Icon?

There are some specific things that will endear an app to me, I’m going to list a few things here that I think help make a great app icon, one that will catch people’s attention (or at least not cause them ignore it).

  • Unless it’s for a prominent or easily recognisable brand it’s important people can get a grasp of what an app does from the icon. It should be descriptive. Twitter’s icon doesn’t help explain what it does, but it’s a massively recognisable brand – it doesn’t need to be descriptive beyond that.
  • Don’t use text! Using text rarely works well, it looks cluttered and messy almost every time – single letters work better but only in specific circumstances.
  • Make it coherent. An app icon works best if it’s coherent with the design of the rest of the app. A great icon often works in my mind as a signal that the interface of the app itself will be worth using.
  • Originality. Be as interesting and unique as you can within the previous constraints. There are a vast number of apps out there, try to separate yourself.

Before there is a slew of comments that show how inconsistent I’ve been, I’d like to take a moment to say how clearly there are exceptions to the above ideas. Some great apps do things that I suggested were bad ideas with their icons – they do say that the exception proves the rule…

Your Thoughts

Before I close I’d like to include an example of app name perseverance that shows how success can come if you keep at it!

Appetites Icon

In an upcoming interview with Nick Alt he describes how he came upon the name of his video cooking app, and some of the dud names he came up with on the way:

I was coming up with all sorts of crappy names for this thing in early November. I remember I had GrubApp and What’s Cooking? Really dumb stuff. My wife came up with Appetite and I added the s. That’s why she’s my wife.

I think the same can be true with icons, Appetites has a great icon that extended from the name. Icons and interfaces are important and influence our enjoyment of the apps we love, are there any apps that you wish would change their icons? What other points would you add to the list of ideas?

As always, we’d love to hear your thoughts – simply post a comment below!