What are the different types and styles of icons?


Common icon types include:

  • Filled icons: Simple, solid shapes ideal for limited space, such as mobile interfaces, providing clear visual cues.
  • Colored icons: Vibrant, possibly gradient, suitable for playful settings like children's apps, though they require cautious use in minimalist designs.
  • Duotone icons: Two-tone icons that add visual interest without overwhelming, perfect for modern web aesthetics.
  • Outlined icons: Minimalist and elegant, defined by clean lines without fill, great for professional environments but may need clearer context.
  • Universal icons: Widely recognized symbols like a magnifying glass for search; crucial to use standard forms to avoid confusion.
  • Unique icons: Specific to particular apps, requiring text labels for clarity due to their unique nature.
  • Conflicting icons: Icons that vary across platforms; consistency and clear labeling are key to preventing confusion.
  • SVG icons: Scalable Vector Graphics suitable for responsive designs across multiple devices, though not ideal for older browsers or complex images.

Each icon type must be chosen considering its context of use, target audience familiarity, and technical requirements to ensure clarity and enhance user experience.

Deep dive

There are several types and styles of icons used in digital interfaces, each serving a specific purpose and uniquely conveying information. Usually, designers choose from the following common types of icons:

Filled icons

A row of three filled icons: a photo icon with mountains and a sun, a home icon, and a lightning bolt icon, all in a minimalist black style.


These are simple, solid shapes that can be easily scaled and colored to suit various design needs. Filled icons work especially well in mobile interfaces or any application where space is limited, as their solid form stands out even at smaller sizes. For instance, a filled 'home' icon in a navigation bar is instantly recognizable and provides a clear visual anchor.

Colored icons

A row of three colored icons: a green circle with a white plus sign, a blue Twitter bird logo, and an orange lightning bolt, all in a minimalist style.


These icons are vibrant and can incorporate single or gradient colors. Their playful nature makes them suitable for informal applications, like in-game interfaces or children’s apps. However, they need to be used sparingly in more professional or minimalist designs to avoid visual clutter. An example could be a gradient-colored 'chat' icon in a social app, which can make the interface feel friendly and engaging.

Duotone icons

A row of three colored icons: a blue trophy, a green circle with a plus sign, and a red notification bell, all in a minimalist style.


Featuring two contrasting colors, these icons can add a subtle visual interest without being too loud. They're particularly effective in modern web designs where a touch of elegance is needed. For creating a duotone icon, designers might use a lighter shade for the background and a darker one for the details to ensure the icon remains accessible even at smaller sizes. A practical use case could be in a music app, where a play icon uses two shades of blue to add depth while keeping the interface sleek.

Outlined icons

A row of three blue outlined icons: an icon with mountains and a sun, a home icon, and a lightning bolt icon, all in a minimalist style.


Defined by their clean, open style, outlined icons are all about minimalism and elegance. They consist of simple lines with no fill, making them airy and less visually heavy than their filled counterparts. Outlined icons are excellent for sophisticated professional interfaces where clarity and refinement are key. However, they might require a bit more cognitive effort from users to interpret, especially if used against a busy background. An outlined 'shopping cart' icon in an eComm

erce app exemplifies this style – elegant yet functional.

Universal icons

A search icon represented by a black magnifying glass inside a white rounded square, set against a blue background.


These icons are staples in digital design due to their wide recognition and association with common actions or features. Examples include a magnifying glass for search, a house for home, and a printer for print. When incorporating these icons, maintaining their traditional shapes ensures user familiarity and prevents confusion. The design can be stylized, but the core representation should remain unchanged, such as sticking with a magnifying glass for search functions instead of opting for less common symbols like binoculars.

Unique icons

A checklist icon with a white document and a checkmark inside a blue rounded square, set against a white background.


Representing specific features or functionalities unique to an application, unique icons require careful consideration in their use. They might not be immediately understandable to all users, particularly those new to the software. For instance, the Sketch app's diamond-shaped logo serves as a unique icon. It's iconic to those familiar with the tool but may be ambiguous to newcomers. It's advisable to accompany these icons with text labels to ensure clarity.

Conflicting icons

A row of three colored icons: a green thumbs-up, a red heart, and an orange star, all in a minimalist style.


Different platforms may use different icons to represent the same action, which can lead to confusion. For example, liking a post might be indicated by a thumbs up on one platform and a heart on another. The key to employing such icons is consistency within your design and clear communication about what each icon means. An icon like a heart could mean 'love,' 'like,' or even 'save to favorites' depending on the context, so providing clear labels can help clarify their meanings.

SVG icons

An orange document icon with a folded corner, featuring text lines and a label that says "SVG" at the bottom, all in a minimalist style.


In the modern multi-device landscape, SVG (Scalable Vector Graphics) icons are invaluable. They scale flawlessly without loss of quality, can be dynamically styled with CSS, and are easily animated, making them ideal for responsive web design. However, SVGs have limitations in older browsers and may not perform well with very complex images due to increased code and potential slowdowns in page loading.

In addition, icon fonts offer an alternative vector-based solution. These are treated like text by browsers, which can lead to smoother edges but may also introduce readability issues under certain conditions. Choosing between SVGs and icon fonts often depends on specific project needs and browser support considerations.

When designing with icons, always consider the context of use, the target audience's familiarity with iconography, and the technical requirements of the project:

  • Resolution and scalability: Icons must be crisp and clear at various sizes and resolutions, especially important in responsive web design where the same icon must work on devices from smartphones to large desktop monitors.
  • Performance: Icons should be optimized for quick loading times. For example, SVG icons are often preferred for their scalability and performance, but if a project needs to support older browsers, alternative formats like PNGs might be necessary.
  • Accessibility: Icons should be accessible to all users, including those with visual impairments. This means ensuring adequate contrast, providing textual alternatives (like tooltips or alt text), and considering the size and clarity of icons to make sure they are distinguishable for users with vision limitations.
  • Compatibility: Ensuring icons appear consistently across different browsers and operating systems is crucial. This may affect the choice between using icon fonts or SVGs, as each has different support levels and behaves differently across platforms.

❓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 is the purpose of the icon within the interface? Determine whether the icon is meant to guide, inform, initiate an action, or serve decorative purposes. This will help in choosing the right style and level of simplicity or complexity.
  • Who is the target audience? Consider the demographic specifics such as age, cultural background, and tech-savviness of the audience. For instance, younger or more tech-savvy users may quickly understand minimalist icons, while others might need more descriptive representations.
  • How will the icon be implemented technically? Decide on the format – SVG, PNG, icon font, etc. – based on the technical capabilities of the platforms where the icon will be used. Consider factors like scalability, browser compatibility, and accessibility.
  • What are the accessibility considerations? Ensure icons are accessible to all users, including those with disabilities. This involves providing adequate contrast, alt text, and ensuring icons are distinguishable at various sizes and resolutions.
  • Does the icon need to be animated or interactive? Determine if the icon should have interactive elements like hover effects, clicks, or other animations that might enhance user engagement and clarify functionality.
  • How does the icon fit within the overall design system? Assess how the icon aligns with the design language and aesthetics of the project. It’s important to maintain consistency in style, color, and line weight throughout the application.
  • What are the potential conflicts with other icons? Identify if the icon could be confused with other icons within the same interface. This is particularly important in avoiding conflicting signals where different icons might have similar shapes but different meanings.
  • Is there a need for localization or internationalization? Consider whether the icons need to be adapted for different languages or regions, which might involve altering the design to better suit local conventions and contexts.
  • How will the icons be tested and validated? Plan for user testing to gather feedback on the icons’ effectiveness and clarity. This might involve A/B testing different styles or gathering user feedback through usability sessions.

⚠️ 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.

  • Using overly complex icons. It can confuse users, especially when viewed in smaller sizes. Icons should be simple enough to be instantly recognizable.
  • Inconsistent icon styles, sizes, or colors within the same application. It can disrupt the user interface's cohesion and make it harder for users to understand and predict interactions.
  • Ignoring cultural differences. Icons that work well in one culture might be meaningless or offensive in another. Failing to consider cultural contexts can lead to misunderstandings and decreased usability for a global audience.
  • Neglecting accessibility. Not designing for accessibility can exclude users with disabilities. Icons should be designed with adequate contrast, alternative text, and larger clickable areas to accommodate all users.
  • Using ambiguous symbols. Employing icons that are too abstract can leave users guessing their meanings, which slows down interaction and can lead to errors.
  • Improper sizing and spacing. Icons that are too small or too closely spaced can be difficult to tap on mobile devices and hard to distinguish, particularly for users with motor impairments or poor vision.
  • Not testing icons with real users. It can lead to assumptions about their clarity and effectiveness. User testing can reveal whether icons are understood and appreciated by your target audience.
  • Relying too heavily on icons without textual support. It can make an interface difficult to navigate, especially for new users or those unfamiliar with an icon’s symbolism.
  • Inappropriate use of colors. Using colors that don't align with the overall design language or that fail to consider color blindness can reduce the effectiveness and aesthetic harmony of icons.
  • Failing to adapt icons for different operating systems, devices, and screen resolutions. It can lead to icons that look great on one device but poor on another.

🤝 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!

Icon Terminology by Uxcel

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