Look around the web and you’re bound to see countless icons. What with the push for increased branding and the idea that online companies must be able to distinguish themselves, these icons, however simple, are often created with a great amount of thought behind the final product.
The ones that succeed are those that immediately connect the viewer with the end business and are able to mirror the products or services that the company provides. The great online icons may be few and far between, but when they’re done well, they truly represent the company behind the image.
Let’s look at a few examples of online icons done well.
Ah, the Apple icon – the classic example of a company with longevity that has seamlessly kept their icon current with the times. In its current form, the Apple icon is a simple white apple on a neutral gray background. The feeling that this icon imparts is of minimal design, functionality, and a slant towards modernity, which is exactly what the company represents.
In the beginning, Apple had a terrible icon when the company first made its introduction in 1976. However, it took less than a year for the company to turn to professional designer Rob Janoff to bring a more coherent vision to Apple branding. Coming up with the simple apple (albeit in rainbow colors), the shape has stayed the same for close to 40 years and still functions as well as it did back then in representing Apple’s ideals.
In the game for more than 13 years, PokerStars has become the global leader in online poker, with an impressive record of more than 100 billion hands played by people from every possible corner of the world. However, even though the face of online poker has gone through many changes, one thing that has stayed the same is their icon. Simple and to the point, the PokerStars icon is a red spade with a white star in the middle and there’s no mistaking what company the icon represents – poker plus stars equals PokerStars. There is some light shading on the icon to give depth and shadow, but it doesn’t take away from the stark boldness of the image, which seems to imply strength and dependability, two core concepts of the PokerStars brand.
At the other end of the spectrum, Twitter’s icon is more lighthearted and features a slightly comically-drawn bird with the most usual color combination being white and light blue. Another Twitter icon uses a lowercase t in blue and white, but has less of a visibility and immediate connection to the company.
While there has been a trend to put birds on nearly everything (see Portlandia’s “Put a bird on it” skit), it works with Twitter because of the obvious bird reference. To twitter, by definition, is for a bird to make a short and light call, which definitely reflects the service that Twitter provides, allowing users to compose 140-character tweets that are often light and airy. This perfect combination is what makes Twitter’s icon one of the most identifiable and one of the best examples of online icons.
Like Apple, Dropbox’s icon is simple, being nothing more than an open box in blue and white. Few details are present save the general outline of the box flaps. The design should obviously imply simplicity as Dropbox’s goal is to make file sharing between computers and collaborators as easy as possible. To date, no other file sharing company has come close to the number of users as Dropbox and for good reason – their simplicity makes using the program easy regardless of whether a person is new to computers or has an IT degree. The other angle to be found on the Dropbox icon is the fact that the box is empty. What the icon (and the company) is saying is that you decide what goes in the box, an interpretation that is extremely open, like the different uses people have found for the application.
A bit more complicated than the examples mentioned above, Hostelworld‘s icon still is immediately recognizable and one that backpackers all over the world have come to trust for finding accommodation options wherever they’re headed next. The visual cues are fairly evident, but there is a little bit of subtlety at play as well. The big H obviously stands for Hostelworld, but it also forms the frame of a bed, on which there is someone sleeping. In addition, the fact that there are two sleeping figures in the icon reinforces the idea of a hostel, which is usually comprised of dorm rooms for multiple travelers. Even though the company has gradually moved closer and closer towards hotels and other accommodation booking in the past year, its main business is with hostels and that concept still takes center stage with their icon.
Last but certainly not least is Instagram. As an example of how an icon can be both extremely graphic and effective, Instagram’s is one of the few that can do both well. Their creation is
clearly a camera, which makes sense given that their business is about sharing pictures. In addition, the fact that it is so different from other icons helps it to stand out among many companies that just use the first letter of their name surrounded by a box or circle. When you see this icon, you know that the focus is on high-quality photos from the details put into the image of the camera. The rainbow and “Insta” at the top left may be a bit superfluous, but also add a pop of texture and color.
Icons can be a lot of things – formal or playful, colorful or muted, bold or restrained, or anywhere in the middle. What matters is that the icon matches the business, an idea that is often forgotten by design companies when they set out on a new logo or icon job. In building the perfect icon, a company needs to think about what values are being represented and what message they are trying to send to their site visitors. For the companies listed above, the icons work extremely well and are one reason why each is a leader in their respective industry.