Continuing the series on icon design, in this tutorial we will learn about the basic principles of creating small icons. It turns out that Adobe Illustrator is suitable for creating pixel icons and it is not so difficult to make them. Let’s get started!
Start with the creation of a base icon 128 x 128px in size. It will represent a three-dimensional image of a key. To learn how to create realistic three-dimensional icons refer to the previous article in this series How to Create Search Files Icon in Adobe Illustrator. The methods involved in creating a key icon is the same, so I will only mention here the main stages of its creation.
Create shapes that form the key with the help of the Pen Tool (P) and the Ellipse Tool (L).
Apply to the resultant shape a 3D Extrude & Bevel effect (Object > 3D > Extrude & Bevel …).
Convert the 3D object into a group of regular vector objects (Object > Expand Appearance).
When we create icons, the size of vector objects has to be finite. This ensures we avoid creating unnecessary items which could result in a confusing icon, saving us a lot of time in the process. Usually I create a bounding square of the required size and draw an icon inside it. But for these purposes, we will be use the artboard, which will give us the advantages you’ll learn about later.
Create an artboard with the help of the Artboard Tool 128 x 128px in size that corresponds to the size of the icons being created.
In this tutorial we will be creating icons of three different sizes, so we create three more artboards, which will be 64 x 64px, 32 x 32px and 16 x 16px in size.
Place the group created in the first step into the first artboard and change its size so that it is close to the size of the artboard.
If we are using an artboard as a bounding rectangle, we can quickly view the created icon in its actual size (100% scale) using the shortcut Cmd / Ctrl + 1, and fit on screen using Cmd / Ctrl + 0.
In addition, you can switch between artboards — ie. the icons of different sizes — using the Artboard Navigation on the Status bar:
For better surface identification, color them with different colors. Create additional elements, duplicating the existing elements, and using the tools of shape creation, such as the Pathfinder panel and Shape Builder Tool.
Using simple linear gradients, fill the key shapes in order to add volume. In this work we always consider the position of the light source.
Create glares on the metal surfaces with the help of objects filled with black and white gradients, to which the Screen blending mode is used.
Use the Multiply blending mode for the shadows.
Create the drop shadow from the key using a blend object (Object > Blend > Make), which consists of ellipses with gray shading. The larger lower ellipse should have 0% opacity.
The key icon at 128 x 128px is ready.
Proceed to creation of icons of other sizes. First, simply reduce the created icon and take a look at the result in actual size.
32 x 32px and 16 x 16px icons do not look clear enough meaning we need to redesign them. The 64 x 64px icon looks acceptable. Consider that we were lucky with this example, but usually this is not the case and we would need to implement a number of adjustments to improve the quality of the reduced version of the icon. Now I will list what steps you can take for these purposes:
- Remove the small elements. Such elements create “mess” and, therefore, can interfere with the perception of basic shapes. The fact is that the final product of any icon is a bitmap file. Small details just do not get into the pixel grid and create a blurred cloud of pixels, which I call “mess”.
- Simplify the complex shapes.
- In order for simple objects such as rectangles and circles get into the pixel grid, its sizes and coordinates must be in whole numbers. In Illustrator CS5, the Transform panel introduced the Align to Pixel Grid option which is very useful to ensure this.
In order to create a clearer 32 x 32px icon, I decided to change its appearance. I think the best solution here will be placing the key into the frontal plane.
To check how the objects are located relatively to the pixel grid, turn on the Pixel Preview mode (View > Pixel Preview).
For better results, use the tips that I described in the previous step.
Now let’s create 16 x 16px icon. It would be better if you create an image that will consist of pixels only. When creating a pixel image in Adobe Illustrator, a pixel represents a 1 x 1px square. Let’s see how it can be done…
Take the Rectangular Grid Tool and click on blank area of the current artboard. In the open dialog window, set the values shown in the picture below and click on OK.
Make sure that the grid lines lie exactly on the lines of the pixel grid, and if not, change its position.
Remove all the colors from the Swatches panel and add the colors that will match the shades of the key to it. The Eyedropper Tool (I) and previously-created icons can help you with that.
Select the created grid, and then take the Live Paint Bucket (K) and click on one of the grid cells. This action leads to the creation of the Live Paint Group. Now you can fill the cells with the selected colors.
To change the colors, use the arrow keys. You can quickly find the color you want, since we’ve removed all the unnecessary colors from the Swatches panel.
Choose a color and create the key outline.
If you make a mistake, choose None swatches and remove the color from the cell.
Using this technique, create the rest of the elements of the key, basic fill, lights and shadows.
Let’s see how this icon looks like in a full size (Cmd / Ctrl + 1).
If you want to quickly replace the colors of this icon, double click on the color swatch in the Swatches panel and tick Global in the dialog window. Now when you change the color swatch, the corresponding color of the icon will change.
Our tutorial is over and now the Icon set looks like this:
Download the mini icon artwork
Click here for Illustrator CS3 and CS4
Click here for Illustrator CS5 and above (also PDF compatible)…
About the author
My name is Iaroslav Lazunov, I am a graphic designer from Zhytomyr, Ukraine. I am glad that I finally found the job in my life that I can share my knowledge and experiments with you in my tutorials.