Designing standout iOS app icons in an artform in itself. Truly great app icons pack the essence of the app's function into one simple square, which needs to grab your attention as part of a crowded desktop or on the App Store. Some icons are examples of brilliant design, and this article celebrates those designs by taking a closer look at the best iOS app icons and exploring why they work so well.
A key part of Apple’s success is due to the company's obsessive attention to detail, which has led to some truly iconic designs (take a look at our ranking of the 100 greatest Apple creations for a reminder). Owners of Apple kit expect great design, from the hardware to the user interfaces – and if something doesn’t look right, they’ll be put off.
With iOS app icons, it’s crucial to get things right. In the App Store, a good icon can make the difference between a sale and being ignored. And on the Home screen, great icons encourage engagement, and therefore need to be compelling and easy to spot. To help you on your way, read on for a collection of beautiful, innovative and stylish app icons.
Notes organiser, Evernote, has a particularly stylish app icon. The clean lines of the elephant create a striking silhouette and we love the simplicity of the block shape. Plus, the meaning of the icon (an elephant never forgets) gets brownie points as well.
You might not think there's anything so special about Headspace's app icon, but its circle of orange on white is actually a great example of minimal design done well. The simple approach mirrors the app's goal, which is to relieve stress through teaching meditation. And we feel calm just looking at that orange dot.
03. Apple News
It might be a bit meta to include the Apple News icon in a roundup of the best icons on Apple, but just run with it for a second. The Apple News icon is clever without being shouty, and uses negative space beautifully to create a perfect 'n'. What's not to like?
Facetune is one of the best photo apps around, and its iOS icon design is an equally standout effort. The tool is geared specifically towards taking perfect selfies, which is succinctly conveyed through the inclusion of the face within the icon. An on-trend gradient brings in the brand colours, while a touch of 3D makes the central circle look like a clickable button that you know you just want to tap on.
05. Paper by WeTransfer
You probably know WeTransfer as a tool to send large files, but the brand also has an award-winning immersive sketching app to its name. Paper's cool iOS app icon subtly mimics the 'W' of its parent company, while the dribbly colours within the outline hint at the app's creative function.
06. Monument Valley
ustwo games' Monument Valley is a stone-cold modern classic – we've already been treated to a successful sequel, with a third in the works. Its iOS app icon sets you up perfectly for the peculiar adventure you're about to undertake. Straight off, it introduces you to the central character, Ida. It also gives you a taste of the game's minimal isometric stylings, wrapping everything up in a sense of mystery that's guaranteed to draw you in.
07. Tayasui Sketches
Tayasui Sketches is a drawing app that prides itself in effectively mimicking traditional art tools. Its pleasingly pared-back app icon features one of the tool's in-app drawing options. We applaud the fact the designer has eschewed a colourful, fussy design (common in the art app space), instead offering viewers what is essentially a blank canvas. The tool promises "a unique UI with a touch of Zen", and the icon captures that perfectly.
Zero marks for imagination here, going for the Captain Obvious padlock, but 1Password’s app icon immediately tells you what it's about. It will be easy to find on your iPhone or iPad, and has authority in the app store. It conveys security at the heart of the app and service alike and makes users feel that whatever’s stored within will be safe.
09. A Good Snowman Is Hard To Build
Game characters are usually too complex to be used in their entirety on an icon. Not so with A Good Snowman’s adorable monster. It stands out from other icons on your home screen and is even waving at you. It's impossible to resist, unless you’re the monster.
For Assembly, an app that’s the digital equivalent of felt shapes but that wants to seduce designers and kids alike, its iOS icon needs to be fun, creative, sharp, and colourful. Assembly's previous icon featured the brand's abstract bird logo, and it did a great job. However, if anything it was too detailed to 'read' properly at small sizes. This updated, pared-back replacement, featuring the same distinctive colour palette, is even better.
This game’s all about controlling living calligraphy, coaxing it to collide with targets. That concept’s too much for an icon, but Blek’s iOS app icon nonetheless gets across the game’s elegance and visuals with a swoosh and memorable lines.
12. Clear Todos
To-do app Clear Todos is one of approximately five million productivity apps using a tick. But this icon's positive, upbeat nature suggests how your life might be better when using the app, and the colours differentiate it from comparatively hum-drum, overly serious competition.
13. DEVICE 6
Simogo’s iOS gaming classic DEVICE 6 dumps you into a world of spies and conspiracy, leaving you to explore a mysterious world and figure everything out. The icon’s subdued menace and bold colours evoke the feel of the game perfectly.
14. Doo – Get Things Done
Manage to get everything done in your to-do list and you feel like you’ve just scaled a mountain, hence the inspiration for Doo’s iOS app icon. Furthermore, it’s far more imaginative and fun than yet another tick.
Learning a language can be daunting, and too many app icons in this space are boring flags or dry corporate icons. Duolingo bucks the trend with a friendly, cartoonish approach – and recent design tweaks have made this happy chappie even more cheerful. Also, we suspect that this hypnotic owl (or is it Orville the duck?) has you use the app more than you realise.
16. Earth Primer
This gorgeous interactive tome about delving deep into the Earth has an icon with the book’s subject matter in microcosm. The subtle textures and drop shadows add plenty of depth to Earth Primer's iOS app icon design.
It’s rare to see photographs integrated into a modern iOS icon (at least, a good one), but Grayout’s terrified eyes ‘trapped’ behind a slab of colour perfectly symbolise the woes of the game’s protagonist, trapped in her head after an accident.
18. Launch Center Pro
This app’s designed to speed up launching things, hence the super-speedy rocket. The Launch Centre Pro icon's friendly, chunky curves and concentric circles add depth and interest. Previously monochrome in dull purples, the updated app icon benefits from bolder colours and a pop of red to draw the user's eye.
Children’s app icons are often awful, but Miximal has a kind of welcoming and goofy charm. It also smartly hints at the concept behind the app – users can slide parts of the screen to construct oddball animals.
20. Papers, Please
Game icons work best when evoking the feel of the game. Papers, Please is set in an oppressive communist regime, hence the stark, brutal iconography atop a subtle explosion of black and grey.
One of the more complex images in this round-up, Prune’s icon displays two main components from the game: fragile trees you help grow, and poisonous floating red orbs. It’s an arresting image that looks great on your homescreen.
Strata is a puzzle game about weaving ribbons, and its icon’s simple pattern feels at home on iOS. Yet the details – subtle shadows; faint textures – recall real-world materials the game simulates.
One of the smartest things about the Threes! game is how the sliding-tile puzzler has been infused with personality. This follows through to the bright, breezy iOS app icon, with its bold number and cheeky face.