How to use icon grids and keylines?


  • Start by selecting an appropriate grid size that fits your design requirements—common choices include 8pt, 16pt, or 32pt grids. 
  • Establish keylines to guide the placement and spacing of your icons, creating a visual rhythm and order. 
  • Use the grid and keylines not just for placement but for precise alignment, considering both horizontal and vertical aspects to achieve pixel-perfect positioning. 
  • Pay attention to the visual weight of icons, distributing them strategically to maintain visual balance across your interface.
  • Remember to incorporate adequate white space around icons for clarity and appeal.
  • Continuously iterate based on user feedback and testing to refine your designs. 
  • Ensure consistency in grid and keyline application across all elements and document your system in a style guide for collaborative consistency.

Deep dive

Using icon grids and keylines is crucial for creating consistent, balanced, and visually appealing icons. Begin by asking yourself: How can icon grids and keylines improve the visual hierarchy and usability of icons within the application? 

Step #1: Choose the right grid

A square icon container with a grid, featuring a central orange circle with a white plus sign.


There's no one-size-fits-all grid. Some common choices include 8pt, 16pt, or even 32pt grids. A smaller grid provides greater precision but might be overly restrictive for larger icons. Consider your icon sizes and the overall visual density of your interface.

Set up the chosen grid system in your design software.

Step #2: Establish keylines

Square icon design featuring a central orange circle with a white plus sign, overlaid with a complex geometric grid.


Keylines guide the placement of icons and other elements. Determine appropriate margins and spacing to establish a visual rhythm. A consistent set of keylines creates a sense of order and predictability.

Step #3: Align, don't just place

Avoid randomly placing icons. Instead, use the grid and keylines to align icons with each other and other elements like text or buttons. Pay attention to both horizontal and vertical alignment, ensuring edges and anchor points align with the grid for pixel-perfect precision. Maintain consistent stroke weights and corner treatments.

Step #4: Consider visual weight

Not all icons have equal visual weight. A filled icon will appear heavier than an outline icon. Distribute icons strategically to maintain a visual balance. If one area feels too crowded, adjust the grid or spacing to compensate.

Step #5: Don't forget the white space

White space (or negative space) is crucial for readability and visual appeal. Resist the urge to fill every inch of your interface. Use the grid to create breathing room around icons and other elements.

Related reading: How does white space affect user comprehension and engagement with content?

Iterate and test

Design is an iterative process. Create initial layouts using your grid and keylines, then test them with users. Gather feedback and make adjustments as needed. Remember, your goal is to create an interface that is both aesthetically pleasing and functional.

Pro tip: Ensure that all icons follow the established grid and keyline system consistently across the application. Use the same grid and keylines for icons on different screens, pages, or device sizes to maintain a cohesive user experience.

Another pro tip: Create guidelines or a style guide that documents the icon grid and keyline system, along with best practices for icon design within the application. Share the guidelines with the design team, developers, and other stakeholders to ensure consistency and collaboration throughout the project.

❓Questions designers should ask themselves

By asking the right questions, designers can question their decisions, find areas to improve, make sure nothing is overlooked, and reduce mistakes, leading to better, more thoughtful designs.

  • What grid size and keyline spacing best suit the application's design requirements and target devices?
  • How can we make sure our icon grid and keylines align with the overall layout and visual hierarchy of the application?
  • Do all the icons look good together – consistent in size, weight, and space well within the grid?
  • Does our current grid and keyline setup give us enough room to adjust as our app grows and changes?
  • Have we taken any user feedback or results from usability tests into account to tweak our icon designs and grid setup?

⚠️ Common mistakes to avoid

Learning from your mistakes is important, but many problems can indeed be predicted and avoided. Based on Cieden's collective expertise, we're sharing the most common ones.

  • Failing to maintain consistency in the use of grids and keylines across all icons and screens. It can lead to a disjointed user experience.
  • Using an overly complex grid system. It can hinder design flexibility and make it challenging to create visually appealing icons.
  • Placing icons without considering their visual weight and spacing within the grid. It can result in an unbalanced and visually jarring interface.
  • Failing to incorporate user feedback and usability testing insights in refining the icon designs and grid system. It can lead to suboptimal user experiences

🤝 Credits

Our content combines the knowledge of Cieden’s designers with insights from industry influencers. Big thanks to all the influencers for sharing awesome content!

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