How to Design App Icons that Grab Attention on Small Screens


Creating an app icon that is memorable and grabs the attention of your target audience right away is definitely no cakewalk. An app icon might be a small, singular and seemingly insignificant piece of graphics design that can contribute immensely to your app’s success but it demands loving attention to detail.

Yes, people with your app installed on the phone will just recognize it. And those who know they need your app will download it anyway. But what about the potential user who is just scrolling through a list of apps in a category, undecided? Chances are that the icon design will be responsible for convincing the viewer to try your app out. This is especially true in case of games and utility apps where there is severe competition.

The most essential element that attracts a user to the app is its exquisite appearance. Research reveals that 90-92% of people prioritize visual attractiveness while making purchase decision. So, it can be said that app icon can boost your business brand’s popularity. That is a lot of potential given the billions of downloads that apps get online, and you should take full advantage!

We have put together some guidelines that cover the basics of designing an app icon that grabs attention.

1. Understand what an icon really is

First of all, you need to understand what exactly an app icon is and what its various functions are in a digital interface. An icon can act as the visual anchor for the product or the services that your app/company wants to present on the digital platform. Think of it as a miniature visual summary of your brand that is capable of communicating the essence of your application.

It is easy to get confused between a LOGO and an APP ICON. While both undoubtedly share some qualities such as branding and colour scheme, there is a major difference. A logo represents the company or brand as a whole, while an icon may represent a product or solution as a subset of the brand itself. Observe a company, for example Adobe with a set of Android apps such as Photoshop, Adobe Reader, and Lightroom. You will notice that the icons have a certain feel that they share, while the logo is not directly implemented on the icons.

Also, unlike scalable logos, icons technically are in raster form with size variants, usually in PNG file format. For app icons you have to design a set of PNG files with resolution ranging from 29×29 all the way up to 1029×1029. They need to be bundled with your app to support a range of screen sizes and operating systems.

2. Simplicity

Viewers are going to encounter your app for the first time in an app store, where they will instantly and subconsciously assess whether it is worth considering your application. If your icon is not able to speak for your services, it will fail, and the viewer may not even trouble himself with reading the description. You have to make more with less if you want your app to be successful.

In 2019, simple and minimalist design has become a jargon for many people. To make your app icon stand out from the crowd you must use just one symbol but in an artistic way. This can be the first step towards keeping things simple. Avoid mixing loads of colours and images in a single icon unless you know what you are doing. Focus on the central concept behind your application to secure the first click. The tagline and description will handle the rest from that point on.

3. Let the icon speak for your brand

We can say that an exceptional icon design is an extension of what the application is all about. It should stand to intuitively convey the reason WHY your app exists.

One creative symbol is enough to create a legitimate impression on the viewer’s mind. You should not try to compress the whole story into a single square icon; it will look heavy and displeasing.
Always remember that the icon speaks for your brand and philosophy. It should not be a conveyor of app features. You can add some important features of your app in the features list or description box. Designing a sleek, integrated figure of your app in the user’s mind can enhance product satisfaction and retention.

4. Use appropriate colours

Colours have by far the biggest influence on user behaviour and their psychology in general. You need to be extra cautious while choosing colours for your icon. At the same time, it is also essential to align colours that are relevant to your logo, website, and the product/service you have to offer. This will be visually appealing to the user and can draw them towards your app.

Instead of using multiple colours you may use a limited colour palette. Using excessive colour and details can ruin your design and will lead to a clumsy icon. A survey by Secretariat of the Seoul international colour expo says that for 84.7% of people, colour is their top priority while designing the app. Use of two or three colours is usually sufficient, not including black. We can cite examples of Snapchat, Whatsapp, Photoshop, Lightroom, CamScanner, etc, which use a simple colouring scheme for designing attractive icons.

5. Make it platform specific

Designing your app icon creatively is not enough. You still have to follow the preconditions set down by the platform where the app is going to be submitted. Every operating system has its own set of conditions. Your design should look compatible among the other set of icons on user specific screen. Android and iOS have their own set of specifications on formats, size, and even style. Following them while building your own app icon gives it a better shot at standing out.

Because you cannot have different icons for every platform, you must make icons that blend right into all the target platforms (or as many major platforms as possible).

6. Scalability

Scalability is the most essential aspect for an icon. As your icon is going to be visible in various platforms and at different sizes, it’s quite important that your design preserve its legibility and uniqueness. The app icon must be of appropriate size that is compatible with various kinds of screen sizes. It needs to be visually attractive in the app stores, on Apple Retina devices and even in settings panels. Icons which are overly crammed often fall victim to adverse scalability. Working on a 1024×1024 pixel can be misleading; you may try the designs on the devices and in multiple context and sizes.

7. Use A/B testing

Nobody can definitely tell you what will work best for you other than your customers themselves. A/B testing is a statistical analysis method that presents variants of a design randomly to the customers and produces statistics for each design that you can then use to validate the performance of each variant.

According to a study, testing app icons before submitting in the app store can raise your app page performance by up to 27%. It is a good idea to incorporate it if you want your app icon to be popular in app store and it is a major product for you.

You can work out design variations and sketches, backgrounds, various colour combinations, small pictures etc. This can be frantic task but it is a crucial step which has to be taken.

Finally, it is extremely important to allocate enough time for competition research. The app business is quite tough and you have to be well aware of who your competitor is in order to reach the top. Hence, its goes without mentioning that you must need to have enough knowledge of what designs your competitors have to offer.

By designing your app icon to be elegant and unique, you can cut through the noise and be readily recognizable. Last but definitely not the least, it is very important that you check the icon on your own devices before making any final decisions. Trust yourself!

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