KDE Visual Design Group/HIG/IconDesign


Icons are pictorial representations of functions and objects, important not only for aesthetic reasons as part of the visual identity of a program, but also for utilitarian reasons as shorthand for conveying meaning that users perceive almost instantaneously. Well-designed icons improve the visual communication and strongly impact users' overall impression of visual design. Last but not least, icons are space-saving and improve usability by making programs, objects, and actions easier to identify, learn. Icon use should be consistent throughout the interface.


  • Design icons with a small number of metaphors [1].
    • Apply metaphors only once (e.g. do not use a brush twice for different options).
    • Rethink conventionally used metaphors (e.g. the clipboard icon of paste).
    • Antiquated metaphors might work well (e.g. a floppy is not necessarily outdated to represent save).
    • Adjust the degree of abstractness according to familiarity of the metaphor.
    • Use arrows only if they can easily be related to spatial features such as Previous/Next in a sequence or Up/Down in a hierarchy. Avoid using arrows metaphorically (such as for Reply/Forward or Undo/Redo).
    • Attempt to use metaphors that are independent of language and culture.
    • Make icons simple.
  • If an icon has important details at larger sizes, rather than simply scaling it down, create unique versions of the icon at smaller sizes. Critical details may become unrecognizable when scaled down.
  • Avoid using text in icon designs; it may not scale well to smaller sizes.
  • Icons of a similar type share a consistent visual language (mimetypes, folders, devices, etc.).
  • Follow the guidelines for presenting icons with text
  • Test your icon set on strength of association, discriminatory power, conspicuousness, and, if applicable, on accessibility.

Monochrome Icons


  • Used for application toolbar and button actions, menus, and status and notifications. Also used for small (16x16) devices and places icons (folders, usb drives, etc.).
  • Rely on a distinct shapes instead of fine details to distinguish between them.
  • Color can be used for distinction (change of state, destructive actions, etc.).

Application icons


  • Unique and easily recognizable.
  • Have the widest variation of color and visual style to represent the visual identity of the application.
  • When creating an system icon theme, respect trademarks by avoiding significant alterations to application icons.



[1] http://user-prompt.com/semiotics-in-usability-guidelines-for-the-development-of-icon-metaphors/

This page was last edited on 4 December 2019, at 13:31. Content is available under Creative Commons License SA 4.0 unless otherwise noted.