I've made a lot of icons, and I've tried to keep them to a particular style. That's a little pretentious - my style is a crutch to hide a lack of ability. Still, it's hard to draw over 1600 little pictures without getting better at making them, and so I've suffered quality-creep. The ones I make now are often more illustrative and less symbolic. I include details that, back in the first hundred, I might have abstracted.
Every good icon I make makes its predecessors look worse, and as I get better I'm making more better icons.
Still, there's some consistency. From the
start I developed a set of unwritten rules about how my icons should
look. There's a few exceptions, but they're almost all due to oversight
or moral weakness.
White on black
Everything is white shapes on a black
background. If I want to do something in black, outline it in white, or
put it over a white shape. When actually using the icons for something I
can invert them if necessary, but for consistency when browsing the
base icons, they're all white on black.
Sharp black and white only
It seemed silly to bother with colour
permutations (red heart on black background, black heart on yellow
background…) for the icons when that's so easily accomplished in a paint
program. I can colour, paint
over, use as masks on a gradient or anything else. The simplest possible
base icons enables the greatest freedom when using them.
This is why I'm always a little annoyed
to see them used as-is; just white shapes on black squares. They were never meant as ready-to-use icons. They're stencils.
Nothing touches the edge of the frame.
There's an invisible 1pt no-go zone. Again, this is just for consistency
amongst the base icons and ensures I have some bleed when I cut out the
icon to use elsewhere.
Fill the frame
The icons are always as large as I can
get them within the frame. They'd be much less useful as a set if they
were all drawn to different scales. If I need a small heart (for
example) I can just scale down a large one. If I really wanted a small
heart icon I'd give it some kind of framing detail.
Left to right
Consistency. If an icon has a direction,
it's going left to right. Up vs down is more flexible, but when it's
isn't common sense I tend towards top-to-bottom.
No lexical symbols
These are meant to be illustrative. No
letters, numbers, currency symbols or overly specific symbols. If I
needed a letter or a number, I could raster it from a typeface. And if I
do one digit I should probably do all of them. Likewise letters. Hash
marks are illustrative enough that they feel ok. There's an omega too.
Not too specific
I don't want twenty different flavours
of axe. If I need a specific icon for a specific variety of thing, I can
make it to suit. One or two axe icons will fit most needs. And the
icons are supposed to be symbolicaly illustrative rather than perfectly
I've bent this one a lot, but I ration
myself. There's a lot of different swords and botles for example, but I
only do them every now and then so they don't take up too great a
fraction of the total. And I try and make sure they're all sufficiently
different from each other to be worthwhile. I'm not interested in doing
ten different helmets with only slight differences.
I suppose this one includes other
people's trademarks and logos too. No Samus helmet, no buster sword and
so on. For several obvious reasons.
Not too abstract
Counterpart to the previous rule. If I
need a circle I'll draw a circle. Likewise an arrow, a diamond or other
simple geometric shapes. The icons are meant to be illustrative and
there's a point at which a shape is too simple to illustrate anything.
I've done a few miscellaneous weird
shapes, which could be glyphs, thingamabobs or jewellery. The problem is
that they're so easy to do I could easily churn out a hundred of them.
But even if they're pretty, they're meaningless. There's not much
difference between having a half dozen available and having a hundred.
They're not challenging to make and usually a waste of time, so I don't
let myself do many.
Definition and resolution
This is the most important one and the
biggest pain in the arse. There's a minimum line width of 1pt. And that
includes negative space - two separate white shapes need to have a 1 pt
separation between them. This is my minimum "resolution" for detail. No
bumps smaller than 1pt, no shapes smaller than that.
There's necessarily a little leeway where
two shapes come together to a point, but I stick to this rule hard as I
can. It puts a hard limit on the level of detail I can put in and keeps
Lines get squared-off ends. If the icon
really needs it they might get a taper. But usually not. And no taking
the piss either - If there's a taper then it should be a short taper.
Sometimes there's a drawn element that is only the width of a line, and
then I might round off or taper the ends but, again, usually not.
By the way
The coloured icons in this post are just sloppy five-minute jobs to make a point.