I can, ican, icon!

My first foray into the world of desktop icon design.

I always considered desktop icon design to exist only in the realm of the design Jedi: Off-limits to everyday designers… but, why?

Let’s rewind to the Netscape days… I was 16 years old, hacking HTML and hand drawing websites for anyone that had a small business and a spare two-hundred dollars. I never really considered myself a designer back then; I was just happy to be doing what I was doing. I hadn’t even been exposed to Photoshop or *ahem* CorelDraw at that point, so I’ll never forget the day I stopped to evaluate and appreciate the Netscape icon sitting on my desktop. 

Why was the bottom the right tip of the N behind the horizon? Why the aqua background? Who made all these decisions that had to be made to create this icon? This was definitely the first time that I remember evaluating digital design—or design at all. I began to pay attention to the other icons, and even the OS itself. But while this opened my eyes to design, I also began to think design must be exclusionary—the people that were able to spend thier lives creating things like icons must be a select elite, one that I could never be a part of. 

This idea stuck with me through most of my career as a digital designer. Until a few years ago I had to design an icon for my first app and felt sheepish throughout the entire process. I was trespassing on sacred ground, the flood lights would be turned on and I would be caught red-handed—trying to design an icon. It turns out there are no Jedi-icon-police and I was just another designer doing what was expected of me. Since this realization, I have become fascinated with icon design and look for a new icon project at every turn. If you are a designer living in fear, here is a simple how-to to get started.

1. Choose a real world object that you know well and grab a large image from google images. 
2. Outline the major pieces of the object in illustrator.Keep each part on a separate layer so you can turn parts on and off as you need them.
3. Copy your shapes over to Photoshop as shape layers and start using the color dropper to pick up the major colors of your object. 
4. Start adding detail to your object and challenge yourself on replicating colors, textures and patterns using only layer styles allowing your icon to scale smoothly.
5. Continue adding detail. Pay attention to gradients. Use the color dropper to pull hex values directly from the trace image to find all the gradient values.
6. Use alpha values in your gradients to add light reflections to your object. To make sharp shadows - duplicate your object, make it a smart clip, cover it with a black color layer and add gaussian blur. 

Once you are happy with your object, read this thread to use it on your machine or use this app to make it a full fledged icon and release it to the masses. 

I hope this helps someone get over the hurdles and into the amazing world of desktop icon design. Just remember, those Jedi were Padawans one day.