There was a point in my life when I ran Arch, had an elaborate personalized terminal prompt, and my own custom icon theme. I stopped doing all these things at various points for different reasons, but underlying them all is a general feeling that it’s taken me some time to figure out how to articulate: I no longer want to invest time in things that don’t scale.
What I mean by that in particular is things that
Only fix a problem for myself (and maybe a small group of others)
Have to be maintained in perpetuity (by me)
Not only is it highly wasteful for me to come up with a custom solution to every problem, but in most cases those solutions would be worse than ones developed in collaboration with others. It also means nobody will help maintain these solutions in the long run, so I’ll be stuck with extra work, forever.
Conversely, things that scale
Fix the problem in way that will just work™ for most people, most of the time
Are developed, used, and maintained by a wider community
A few examples:
I used to have an Arch GNU/Linux setup with tons of tweaks and customizations. These days I just run vanilla Fedora. It’s not perfect, but for actually getting things done it’s way better than what I had before. I’m also much happier knowing that if something goes seriously wrong I can reinstall and get to a usable system in half an hour, as opposed to several hours of tedious work for setting up Arch. Plus, this is a setup I can actually install for friends and relatives, because it does a decent job at getting people to update when I’m not around.
Until relatively recently I always set a custom monospace font in my editor and terminal when setting up a new machine. At some point I realized that I wouldn’t have to do that if the default was nicer, so I just opened an issue. A discussion ensued, a better default was agreed upon, and voilà — my problem was solved. One less thing to do after every install. And of course, everyone else now gets a nicer default font too!
I also used to use ZSH with a configuration framework and various plugins to get autocompletion, git status, a fancy prompt etc. A few years ago I switched to fish. It gives me most of what I used to get from my custom ZSH thing, but it does so out of the box, no configuration needed. Of course ideally we’d have all of these things in the default shell so everyone gets these features for free, but that’s hard to do unfortunately (if you’re interested in making it happen I’d love to talk!).
Years ago I used to maintain my own extension set to the Faenza icon theme, because Faenza didn’t cover every app I was using. Eventually I realized that trying to draw a consistent icon for every single third party app was impossible. The more icons I added, the more those few apps that didn’t have custom icons stuck out. Nowadays when I see an app with a poor icon I file an issue askingifthedeveloperwouldlikehelp with a nicer one. This has worked out great in most cases, and now I probably have more consistent app icons on my system than back when I used a custom theme. And of course, everyone gets to enjoy the nicer icons, not only me.
Some other things that don’t scale (in no particular order):
Separate home partition
Non-trivial downstream patches
Multiple Firefox profiles
User styles on websites
Running your blog on a static site generator
Hosting your own email (and self-hosting more generally)
Google-free Android (I use Lineage on a Pixel 1, it’s a pretty miserable existence)
Buying a Windows computer and installing GNU/Linux
Custom keyboard shortcuts, e.g. for launching apps (I still have a few of these, mostly because of muscle memory)
The free software community tends to celebrate custom, hacky solutions to problems as something positive (“It’s so flexible!”), even when these hacks are only necessary because things are broken by default. It’s nice that people with a lot of time and technical skills can fix their own problems, but the benefits from that don’t automatically trickle down to everybody else.
If we want ethical technology to become accessible to more people, we need to invest our (very limited) time and energy in solutions that scale. This means good defaults instead of endless customization, apps instead of scripts, “it just works” instead of “read the fucking manual”. The extra effort to make proper solutions that work for everyone, rather than hacks just for ourselves can seem daunting, but is always worth it in the long run. Just as with accessibility and commenting your code, the person most likely to benefit from it is you, in the future.
After the name, the app icon is the most important part of an app’s brand. The icon can help explain at a glance what the app does, and serves as an entry point to the rest of the experience. A high quality icon can make people want to use an app more, because it’s a stand-in for the quality of the entire app.
Think of the app icon like an album cover for your app. Yes, technically the music is the same even if you have a terrible cover, but a great cover can capture the spirit of the album and elevate the quality of the thing as a whole.
The first thing you need is a metaphor, i.e. some kind of physical object, symbol, or other visual artifact that symbolizes your application.
Finding a good metaphor is a fuzzy and sometimes difficult process, as it’s often hard to find a physical object many people will recognize as related to the domain of your app. There are no hard and fast rules for this, but ideally your icon metaphor should fall into one of these categories:
Physical objects directly related to what the app does (e.g. a speaker for Music)
Physical objects vaguely related to the app’s domain or an older analog version of it (e.g. a cassette tape for Podcasts)
Symbols related to the domain (e.g. the “play” triangle for Videos)
A simplified/stylized version of the app’s user interface (e.g. Peek)
There are also anti-patterns for metaphors which should be avoided, if possible:
My process for brainstorming metaphors is quite similar to the one I use to brainstorm names: I come up with a few ideas for physical objects, put them in a thesaurus to find more related ones, and repeat that until I have a list with at least a few viable candidates.
Let’s start with related physical objects:
How about related non-objects? Maybe we can find some more interesting objects that way:
Reading, the activity: Couch, reading light, tea/coffee, glasses
Later (as in, “read later”): Clock, timer
Collecting things: Folder, clipboard
Now that we have a few options, let’s see which ones are viable. Ideally, the metaphor you choose should have these attributes:
Somewhat specific to the app’s domain (e.g. a book is probably too generic in our case)
Recognizable at small sizes
Can be drawn in a simple, geometric style (this can save you a lot of work later on)
In this case, the most viable options are probably
Stack of books
One of the above + a clock
Now that we have some metaphors, let’s try to sketch them to see if they make for good icons. I usually use pencil and paper for this, but you can also use a whiteboard, digital drawing tablet, or whatever else works for you to quickly visualize some concepts.
While sketching it’s good to think about the overall shape your icon will have. If it makes sense for your metaphor, try to make the icon not just a simple square or circle, but something more unique and interesting. If it doesn’t make sense in your case don’t force it though, there are other ways to make the icon visually unique and interesting, such as color and structure.
In this case, it looks like there are a number of viable concepts among our sketches, though nothing jumps out as the obvious best option. I kind of like the bookshelf, so let’s try going forward with that one.
Start from a Template
We now have a concept we like, so we can move to vector. This is where we can start using the shiny new icon design tools!
Open App Icon Preview, and hit the “New App Icon” button on the welcome screen. We’re asked for the Reverse Domain Name Notation name of the app (e.g. org.mozilla.Firefox), and where to store the icon project file.
In most cases you’ll want to keep this file in your app’s git repository. Think of it as your icon’s source file, which the final icon assets are later exported from.
After that, the icon will open in preview mode in App Icon Preview. Now we open the same file in a vector drawing app, and edit it from there. Every time we save the source file, the preview will automatically update.
Now we have our icon source file open in both App Icon Preview and Inkscape. Icon Preview shows just the icon grid:
In Inkscape, open the Layers panel (Ctrl + Shift + L) and check out the layer structure. The icons layer is where the actual icon goes. The grid and baseplate layers contain the icon grid and the canvas respectively.
Behind everything else is the template layer, which doesn’t contain anything visible and is only needed so App Icon Preview can get the canvas size for preview and export. Don’t change, hide, rename, or delete this layer, because the icon might not show up in App Icon Preview anymore.
When previewing the icon in App Icon Preview you’ll want to hide the grid and baseplate layers (using the little eye icon next to the layers).
Make sure you have the GNOME HIG Colors palette in Inkscape. Inkscape 1.0 Beta has it by default, otherwise you can download it from the HIG App Icons repository and put it in ~/.var/app/org.inkscape.Inkscape/config/inkscape/palettes for Flatpak Inkscape or ~/.config/inkscape/palettes if it’s on the host. There’s also a color palette app, which you can get on Flathub.
Once you’re familiar with the template, you can start drawing your icon idea as vector. If you’re using Inkscape and aren’t very familiar with the app yet, here’s a quick overview of the things you’ll likely need.
Toolbox (the toolbar on the left edge)
Selection/movement/scaling tool (S)
Rectangle tool (R)
Ellipse tool (E)
And if you’re doing something a little more advanced:
Bezier path drawing tool (B)
Path & node editor (N)
Dialogs Sidebar (configuration dialogs docked to the right side)
Fill & Stroke (Ctrl + Shift + F)
Align & Distribute (Ctrl + Shift + A)
Layers (Ctrl + Shift + L)
Snap Controls (the toolbar on the right edge) Inkscape has very fine-grained snapping controls, where you can configure what should be snapped to when you move items on the canvas (e.g. path nodes, object center, path intersections). It’s a bit fiddly, but very useful for making sure things are aligned to the grid. The icon tooltips are your friends :)
Of course, teaching Inkscape is a bit out of scope for this guide. If you’re just getting started with it, I recommend doing a few beginner tutorials first to familiarize yourself with the basic workflows (especially around the tools listed here).
The GNOME Icon Style
Traditionally, GNOME app icons were very complex, with lots of photorealistic detail and many different sizes which had to be drawn separately. This changed when we revamped the style in 2018, with the explicit goal of making it easier to produce, and more approachable for third party icon designers.
The new style is very geometric, so in many cases you can draw an entire icon with just basic shapes.
One important attribute of the style is the abstract perspective. Even though the style is simple and geometric, it’s not “flat”: It makes use of material, depth, and perspective, but in a way that is optimized for easy production as vector.
The perspective works by “folding” horizontal and vertical layers into one dimension, so you can see the object orthogonally from both the top and the front.
This results in a kind of “chin” an the bottom of the object, which is shaded darker than the top surface, since light comes evenly from the top/back.
In practice, this usually doesn’t have a huge impact, since it’s also suggested to make objects not too tall, when possible. A lot of icons are just a simple 2D shape with a small chin at the bottom.
That said, it can look very weird when you get the perspective wrong, e.g. by folding the layers from the top/back instead of the front, so it’s important to keep this in mind.
Material & Lighting
Icons can make use of skeuomorphic materials (e.g. wood, metal, or glass) if it’s needed for the physical metaphor, but outside of those special cases it’s recommended to keep things simple.
Straight surfaces have flat colors (instead of e.g. slight vertical gradients), but curved surfaces can/should have gradients. The corners on the chin on rounded base shapes should have a highlight gradient.
Shadows inside the icon should be avoided if possible, but can be used if necessary (e.g. for contrast reasons). Do not use drop shadows that affect the app outline though, because GTK renders such a shadow automatically.
Icon Grid & Standard Shapes
In order to make sure icons are somewhat similar in size, alignment, etc. we have a grid system.
The canvas is 128x128px (for legacy reasons), but you’re designing for 64×64, while also taking 32×32 into account where possible. In general, it’s good to make sure you’re putting as many lines as possible on grid lines, so they’re sharp even at 32. Testing in App Icon Preview helps a lot with this.
The icon grid also has some standard shapes for wide, tall, square, and circular icons, which can be used as a basis for the structure of the icon if it makes sense for the metaphor (e.g. if the object is more or less square, use the square standard shape).
Protip: Great Artists Steal Reuse
There are lots of apps with icons in the GNOME style out there, and they’re all free software. If there’s something you like about another app’s icon you can get the source from GNOME Gitlab or Github, look at how a certain object is drawn, or just take (parts of) other icons and adapt them to your needs.
This is especially useful for common objects needed in many icons, e.g. pencils, books, or screens. The icon template in App Icon Preview comes with a few of these common objects on the canvas, which can be a good starting point for new icons.
Draw, Preview, Repeat!
Armed with this knowledge about the style and tooling, we can finally jump in and start drawing! In this case I re-did the sketch at a slightly larger size to get a better feel for it:
Now let’s try vectorizing it. Since the overall shape is a tall rectangle, we can start with the tall rectangle standard shape. If we change the color to brown, and make the chin at the bottom thicker (by resizing the top layer vertically), we have the basic frame for the shelf.
After that we can add the actual shelves, by simply adding two slightly darker brown rectangles (the back of the shelf), and two wide rectangles at the top of these (the bottom of the horizontal shelf).
Changing the color of the chin is a bit tricky, because it has a horizontal gradient. It requires selecting the bottom rectangle with the gradient tool, clicking each gradient stop manually and changing it to brown by clicking one of the colors in the color palette at the bottom edge of the window.
Let’s see what this looks like in Icon Preview now:
Getting there, right? Now let’s add some books. Lucky for us, book spines can also be drawn as rectangles, so this shouldn’t be too hard. We don’t want too much detail, because we’re designing for 64px first and foremost. Something like 10 books per row should work.
If we want to get fancy we can also round the top of the spine on some of the books by adding an ellipse of the same color, but it’s not really needed at this size.
Looking good! I think we’re done with the full-color icon.
If at this point in the process you feel like the concept or metaphor isn’t working out (for example because it doesn’t look interesting enough, or because it’s too complicated to work at small sizes) you can always go back a few steps and try vectorizing a different one of your sketches. The nice thing about the simplicity of this style is that you can do this without losing weeks of work, which making iteration on concepts much more feasible.
Now that the full-color icon is done, we can start thinking about the symbolic icon for our app. Ideally this is a simplified, one-color version of the app icon, designed for a 16×16 px canvas. It’s used in notifications and some other places in the Shell where a colorful icon would not be appropriate.
I won’t go into too much detail on this here since drawing good symbolics is a big topic, and this post is too long already. I might expand on this in a future post, but for now here are a few quick tips:
Alignment to the pixel grid is very important here if you don’t want the icon to end up a blurry mess
Stick to the original metaphor if at all possible, go for something else if not
Test in App Icon Preview to make sure the icon is actually recognizable at 16px
If possible leave the outermost 1px empty on all sides
Most strokes should be 2px, but they can be 1px in some cases
Don’t overthink it for the first version. This icon is a secondary thing, and it’s relatively little effort to fix/redo it later :)
Our bookshelf example looks tricky at first glance, because we have all these tiny books, and only 16 pixels to work with. However, if we simplify it enough it’s not too hard to get something decent. We can just use a two tall and two wide rectangles to draw the shelf, and three smaller rectangles as books on each shelf:
And that’s it! We have a real app icon now, with everything that entails. If you want to have a look at the source for the icon we made in this tutorial, you can download the SVG here. It includes the final icon and some of the intermediate steps.
Now that we’re happy with the icon, we can press the “Export” button in App Icon Preview and save the final icon assets. The app will automatically optimize the SVGs for size, and if you have nightly builds of your app, you also get an automatically generated nightly icon without any extra work!
Congratulations for making it all the way to the end! I hope you found this tutorial useful, and will go on to make great icons for your apps. If there’s anything you found unclear while following along, please let me know in the comments.