How to design an app icon: 9 best practices for 2024

By Einav Mor-Samuels
App icon - featured

What comes to mind when you think of your favorite mobile app? Many people would say the app icon. 

It may be small, but your app icon is the “face” of your app — it’s what people see in the app store search results or on their home screen. And you only get one chance to make a good first impression. That tiny package of lines, colors, and symbols can make all the difference in convincing someone to download or open your app. 

So how can you pack the most punch in such a small space? Let’s dig into app icon design best practices.

What is an app icon?

Let’s clear up a common misconception: An app icon is not a logo. A logo represents your brand’s identity across multiple platforms, mediums, and touchpoints. Think Nike’s Swoosh or Apple’s… apple. Meanwhile, an app icon is only for one product — your mobile application. 

While it’s possible to incorporate your company logo into your app icon, often the two look very different. Let’s say your company has multiple mobile game apps. Each game will have its unique app icon design, distinct from your organization’s logo. 

App icons serve as visual anchors for mobile apps, appearing in app store listings and device home screens to help users find and recognize your app.

Why is an app icon important?

App icons are small, but mighty. Here’s why: 

  • Discoverability and acquisition: Your app icon is often the first thing users see in app store search results. It makes an important first impression and helps people determine if they want to see your app listing and learn more about your product. One A/B test found that changing the app icon can increase conversion rates by 100%.
  • Proposition: Your app icon should give users a sense of what your app does. Is it a fun game? Does it help them manage their health or their finances? Can it stream music or video? If the design isn’t a good fit for your service, users may overlook or distrust your app. 
  • Emotional connection: A picture is worth a thousand words, and graphic elements such as icons, images, and videos can help people remember your products and connect with your brand. Meanwhile, you can leverage color psychology to associate your app with certain feelings.
  • Stickiness: An eye-catching and recognizable app icon makes it easier for customers to find your app on their home screens, making them more likely to open and use your app regularly. That’s important for driving engagement, revenue, and retention.

If all this sounds like a big ask of a tiny square, don’t worry — we’ve got all the tips you need to nail your icon design. 

Getting started

Ready to create an icon that will make your app stand out from the crowd? You have a few options available to you. 

  • Do it yourself: If you have a clear idea of what you want, and you’re keen to keep costs down, you can use a DIY design tool such as Canva and get creative. 
  • Do it for me: Not sure where to start? Try an online icon generator or library. 
  • Do it with me: AI can be a big help when you need some inspiration. But remember, what you get out is only as good as what you put in. Be sure to tell your AI tool what your app does, how it should make customers feel, and any color or style specifications. 

The other option — budget permitting — is to bring in the professionals. A good designer will talk to you about exactly what your icon needs to convey, and craft something totally original yet bang on brand. Given how hard your app icon needs to work, this expert support could be well worth the investment.

Whatever route you choose, you’ll need to make sure your creation meets the design standards for the major app stores. Read on to learn more…

App icon design specifications

App icon design specifications

While your app icon design should stand out, you must adhere to a few rules when submitting it to the app stores. While both the Apple App Store and Google Play Store demand app icons be square-shaped, they have different specifications, so keep the developer guidelines in mind when creating the assets.

App icon design specifications for Apple App Store

Follow Apple’s Human Interface Guidelines when designing app icons for the iOS ecosystem. Your app icon should work well in multiple sizes to suit various devices, for example:

  • 180 × 180px @3x or 120 × 120px @2x for iPhones
  • 167 × 167px @2x for iPad Pro
  • 152 × 152px @2x for iPad and iPad Mini 
  • 1024 × 1024px @1x for the App Store 

The good news is, you only need to submit one 1024 × 1024px PNG file, and the platform will automatically resize the asset to fit various devices and sub-menus.

Apple app icons must be in PNG format and support sRGB (for color) and Grey Gamma 2.2 (for grayscale). Layers, transparency, and exact shape vary by platform, so be sure to check the full guidelines before you start. 

Apple also offers additional guidelines, like keeping your app icon simple and easily recognizable on all platforms. Avoid using a complex background, flatten the image (in other words, no transparency) and only include text if it’s an essential part of the brand identity. Lastly, don’t put photos, screenshots, or interface elements in the graphic.

Thanks for your download!

App icon design specifications for Google Play Store

Google also has detailed specifications for app icon design. Here are some key points to keep in mind:

  • The final size should be 512 × 512px. The platform will scale it automatically.
  • The file should be in 32-bit PNG format. 
  • The color space should be sRGB.
  • The file must be no larger than 1024 KB. 
  • The shape should be a square without rounded corners — the platform applies a mask once you upload the file. 

Use the entire asset space (512 × 512px) as the background, and the keylines (set at 384 × 384px) to position logos, icons, or graphic elements. Don’t add a drop shadow to the design because the platform will add it once you upload the file. However, you can add shadows to graphic elements within the border of the app icon. 

Also, avoid using promotional or branding badges in the artwork since they often don’t scale well.

9 app icon design best practices (and some mistakes to avoid)

Knowing the specs is essential. But everyone has the same square to work with — how do you create an app icon that represents your brand and stands out in the crowded marketplace? Here are some tried-and-true best practices to follow:

1. Unique and recognizable

App icon unique design

Your app icon must stand out from millions of apps in the app store — especially among your competitors in relevant search results. Besides driving downloads, it should help users easily find your app on their home screens so they’ll open and use it frequently.

It’s best not go too wild, though — your app icon still needs to fit with your brand and give users a clue as to what it does.

2. Simple 

Simplicity, when done right, can help you achieve instant recognition. Think of brands like Target, Spotify, or YouTube, whose app icons contain just a couple of vibrant colors and simple shapes. 

Taking out distracting elements helps the main design pop even more. Clean, simple designs also scale better across platforms and devices — and they’re better from an accessibility perspective too.

Top tips include removing background patterns, using gradient sparingly, and avoiding text and images (they don’t work well in such a small space). 

3. Recognizable

This relates to the previous two points. It’s a fine balance between creating an original design, and ensuring users can:

  • Recognize the type of app you’re offering (gaming, finance, health, and so on)
  • Recognize your app over your competitors (we all know how annoying it is when you open the wrong app on your device)
  • Recognize the image or symbol you’re depicting

Analyze competitor apps to see what elements they use to build a connection with users. Then, see which of these you could incorporate while putting your own twist on it. 

4. Form

This one is a bit more technical, but it’s crucial to making your app icon easy on the eye. Your icon may occupy a tiny space, but every element of it needs to be balanced and correctly aligned. Otherwise, it’s jarring and can put users off. 

This is why designers often work on a grid pattern, to ensure everything is perfectly positioned. If you haven’t had your icon designed by a professional, it’s a good idea to seek feedback from some expert eyes.  

5. Platform-specific designs

Every operating system (OS) has unique design principles to guide all user interactions. An app icon that fits right in with iOS devices may stick out like a sore thumb on Android.  

You should use the same design elements (like symbol and color) on all your app icons to enhance brand recognition. But you may need to apply slightly different treatments for each platform’s assets to ensure that the final design fits in with the overall user experience.

6. Multiple sizes and backgrounds

Different devices display app icons in various sizes. Since most platforms use raster graphics, which don’t scale as well as vector images, you should test and preview your icon in every required size before submission. Keeping your app icon design simple can help preserve legibility across platforms and devices.

It’s also worth testing your design against the most popular OS wallpapers to ensure your app icon doesn’t disappear into the background. To prevent this from happening, avoid transparency and consider using a contrasting border. 

7. Alignment with your brand identity

App icon design alignment

An app icon must not only communicate what your app does, but also represent your brand. It should be consistent with your brand’s image and all other touchpoints to deliver a coherent experience. 

If your brand offers multiple apps (different games, for example), consider having a “throughline” (or design language) that ties all your app icons together. That might mean using a similar color palette, specific symbols or graphics, or a consistent stylistic treatment to create a shared “vibe”. 

8. Continuous testing 

Even the best designer can’t conjure the perfect app icon out of thin air. Getting user feedback early and often is the key to nailing your design and evolving it to meet shifting consumer trends. 

Run focus groups and A/B tests to evaluate options (more on this below), or try Google Experiments for Android designs. 

9. Ongoing evolution

If testing shows your app icon is no longer cutting it, don’t worry. Ongoing improvement is critical for keeping up with market expectations. 

Look at leading brands to gain insights into general design trends, and keep an eye on competitors to see what direction your specific industry is heading. An app icon refresh can help your brand stay current and signal to users that you’re committed to optimizing their experience.

For example, this video shows how Google’s suite of app icons have evolved over the past decade to present a more consistent and contemporary feel. 

Or consider Instagram, which has gradually made its app icon simpler and brighter — helping it stand out on users’ busy home screens, while staying connected to its core purpose (photos, of course!).

App icon Instagram design changes

Common mistakes to avoid

Following the guidance above will set your app icon on the path to success. Just be sure to avoid these common pitfalls:

  • Too bland: Yes, we said your app icon should be simple, and fit in with others in its category. But don’t make it so dull that users scroll right past it.
  • Too busy: You’ll know by now that text and photos are a no-no for app icons — they just won’t be properly visible in such a small space. And a graphic that’s too cluttered or busy won’t convey your message effectively.
  • Too confusing: “What even IS that?” We’ve all seen icons that just don’t make sense. Don’t leave yours open to interpretation — test it with a diverse group of people, to check they all see what you do.
  • Too local: If you want your app to be used internationally, check that your design works across cultures and language barriers. Will your graphics or symbols be meaningful? Do your colors have particular connotations in different regions? Getting these details wrong could be a costly mistake.
  • Not accessible: Clear colors with good contrast are vital in helping users recognize your icon — even more so for people who may have visual or cognitive impairments. 

How to A/B test your app icon

So you’ve followed the guidelines, met the design specs, and created a few icons you think really showcase your app. But don’t just pick one based on gut feel — you need hard data to help you identify the best option. That’s where A/B testing comes in.

A/B testing lets you show different variants of your app to different audiences, so you can see which gets the best response (like click-throughs or downloads). For example, you can run a Facebook campaign where users are randomly shown one of two designs.

Be sure to include a big enough sample size for meaningful results, and ensure you’re testing with your target audience. And it’s best to focus on one design element at a time — for example, experimenting with a stronger background color or a cleaner font, rather than a full-scale redesign. 

Once you analyze the results, you can take steps to optimize your icon for maximum engagement.    

Key takeaways

  • Your app icon makes an important first impression and captures attention in app store search results. This helps build brand awareness, increase your click-through rate, and drive downloads.
  • It also helps you stand out on users’ home screens, so they’ll more likely open the app and engage with your content.
  • Your app icon must meet design guidelines for each platform to ensure that it’s displayed correctly in the app stores. 
  • Make sure your app icon is unique, simple, and recognizable, with perfect form. It should align with your brand and display properly on different devices, operating systems, and backgrounds. Remember to keep testing your app icon and evolve your design over time.   
  • Common mistakes include making your app icon too bland, too busy, or too hard to recognize. And don’t forget about accessibility or cultural differences.
  • A/B testing helps you identify the most effective app icon design, by comparing engagement across different variants.

Einav Mor-Samuels

With extensive experience in digital marketing, Einav is a Content Writer at AppsFlyer. Over the course of the past 15 years, she has gained ample experience in the mobile marketing landscape, researching market trends, and offering tailored solutions to customers' digital problems. Einav fuels her content with data-driven insights, making even the most complex of topics accessible and clear.
Ready to start making good choices?