The App Icons Design: Functionality or Inspiration?

The editor of a respected design magazine recently told me that these days it’s all about apps. Did she wink as she said it or was it a trick of the light? I don’t know, but I was perplexed. She’s been right about a lot of things in the last two decades. Wrong about a few. What about now?

The digital revolution promised a great deal and has delivered some wondrous, joyous things. Perhaps we have only failed to man the barricades in this latest revolution because the barriers between hither and thither have been removed – rather than erected—by it. But if you don’t mind, I’d like to ponder the implications of digital ascendency for the common or garden brand or packaging designer another time, preferably when things are a little quieter me and my designers are not drowning in work.

Right now I’d like to talk apps, or rather icons. There are some fantastic apps out there and some have great icons that produce a smile in the mind. It is a high tech world, but an old-fashioned design challenge: explain what something does in the quickest, simplest, most effective way. That is the definition of graphic communication.

It is a real test of creativity to produce an app icon that is a great design job and a great many fail the test. I am not going to name and shame as frankly there are too many to choose from and I don’t want to publicise bad design. Generally speaking the traps they fall into are the same as could be applied to many fields of design—too complicated, too crowded, so clever that their meaning is impenetrable, messy, ill thought through, illegible, just plain bad.

But the good ones are very good. ColorSplash is lovely. The app enables you to convert photos to black and white while keeping some details in colour. It is intuitive and easy to use and the icon reflects that. It looks fresh and tempting, so it is spot on for the app. The National Gallery app icon invites you to view—perfect—and it is campaignable using the eyes from different masterpieces.

There was a bit of debate in the studio about the function of icons. Some of my younger brethren attest that an app icon should simply act as a preview for the application and that’s it—bugger being cute, it is not what the user wants. Sitorsquat was a popular example—one can be in no doubt as to what the app does.

I believe there is room for both approaches and I applaud everyone who goes that little bit further to engage, amuse and intrigue. For inspiration visit

About the Author

Chris Hart is Creative Director at Blue Marlin, Bath. His favourite projects span global spirits brands and small-scale artisan products, from Smirnoff and Johnnie Walker to Hiho and Pukka Pies.