BoardGameBen "Guest" Post: 7 Rules for Icon Design

This week, we finalized the icon design for the eight suits of 8 Kingdoms. As our company's graphic designer, I had some limited experience with icon design on personal projects, but this was my first time creating a set of icons for an official, being-published game. As I worked, I set some rules for myself, both to help the icons feel cohesive, and to keep the icons identifiable and scalable.

This post is in the style of my other blog, BoardGameBen's Blog, where I write each Wednesday about game design and gamer culture.

For reference, here is the complete set of icons:


1. Use symmetry

Symmetry is generally pleasing to the eye, and it cuts down on the number of features you need to worry about (and the player's mind needs to remember). 7 of the 8 icons are horizontally symmetrical (the first and last are also horizontally vertically symmetrical). The sun is not technically symmetrical, but it is the rotationally symmetrical (i.e., you can rotate it any multiple of 45 degrees and it will look the same), which is the next best thing.

2. Use a single color

Each icon in 8 kingdoms needs to represent a suit, and that color plays out throughout the suit as well. As a result, the icons needed to represent that color. I think a single color (plus negative space/white space) for icons is a good idea in general. Once you have more than 1 color, you're getting into the realm of illustration, which leads into my next rule.

3. Avoid fine detail

Fine details will get lost or muddied when you're icon changes size, so it's a good idea to keep things as simple as possible. The finest detail we have is probably the "texture" on the cap of the mushroom, but even if that was lost in a tiny icon, you would still see a mushroom, so the detail isn't vital. The rest of the details are all blocky and uniform, like the teeth of the skull or the spacing in the red knot, so they hold up to resizing.

4. Limit yourself to a couple shapes

This rule means a couple things. First, if you can, limit yourself to about 3 discrete shapes. The majority of the icons I designed are a single shape, though River has 2 ripples and the Skull has two negative spaces for its eyes. Second, if you need more than 3 shapes, try to use repetition (rule #1 can help a lot here). For example, the knot uses just 2 distinct shapes, the loop and the line with the round end, though they get cropped at different positions in some cases. So, even though the knot has 14 discrete shapes, you're only really seeing 2 shapes repeated. Likewise, the sun has 9 shapes, but 8 of them are repeats of the "ray" and one is just a circle.

5. Icon cohesion

If your icon does use multiple shapes, avoid having too much empty space between those elements. This can make your icon feel like its multiple distinct icons and can lead to player confusion.

6. Work within a set space

Set yourself a limiting space to work on every icon. As you work, no icon should exceed that space, but every icon should feel like it fills the space as well. If an icon takes up less than half the space, you should probably add to it (which is why the water drop has ripples). Chances are, your icons will be occupying similar spaces on your game components (e.g., a specific slot on each card), so they should all be able to fit comfortably in a common space.

7. Avoid using the same overall shape for multiple icons

When players are shuffling through cards, or looking at a board or token at a glance, the eye doesn't have time to discern every detail of an icon. Different colors can help, but colorblind players may not be able to see the color difference, and poor lighting can obscure this distinction. So, if you have two icons that are a very similar shape (say one is a ring and the other is two concentric rings with a narrow gap between them), then this can lead to confusion. I tried to make sure that every icon had a different overarching feel. If one part was similar on two icons, I made sure something else was different. For example:

  • The water drop and the mountain are both somewhat pointed at the top, but the water drop curves in at the bottom, and the mountain has a distinct negative space at its top.
  • The skull and sun are both circular, but the sun has broken out shapes all around it, while the skull juts out at the bottom, and has eyes
  • The knot and the snowflake both have "arms" but the knot uses a lot of curves in its design, while the flake is strictly straight lines