We use a lot of icons in our web application designs. In the past, we always hired an icon artist to create unique icons for our clients. A typical icon typically costs anywhere from $25-$100 to create, depending on its size and how many drafts it takes to come up with a final idea (the icon for “user” is probably a bit easier to produce than the one for “relay switch”).

We still hire icon artists for some of our clients. But more and more often, I find that we turn to icon collections. Some icon designers have created collections of their icons and sell them as packages. You buy the icons and you’re free to use them in any applications you design or develop (note: be sure to always check the licensing agreement for the icons before you buy them).

Icon Experience

Icon Experience

My absolute favorite collection is created by the folks at Icon Experience. They sell icons in two styles: Windows Vista and Windows XP and in sizes ranging from 16×16 to 128×128 pixels. The collections are huge – I am almost always able to find the icon I need, no matter what application I’m working on. The entire set of 2,000 XP icons (each in 5 sizes) is just $289, which is an amazing bargain.

They also make a piece of software called the Icon Toolbox that makes it easy to add badges to an icon (for instance, adding a “+” to the right corner of a “user” icon to mean “add user”. Since many of the icons are usable as badges, this makes the Icon Toolbox very useful.

Icon collections that I turn to for the applications we design:

  • Icon Experience – Vista and XP: Applications, Objects & People, Business & Data, Network & Security, Software Development, Flags. This is far and away my favorite.
  • VirtualLnk – Vista & Xp & others: Application Basics, Web Design, Media, Financial, Transportation, Business, Web site, Accounting, Medical, Education.
  • Icon Shock – Vista & XP & 23 others: Business, Multimedia, Security, Communications, Medical, Jobs, Education, Database, Computer Hardware, Real Estate, Project Management, and many others.
  • Professional Icons.com – Vista, XP & others: Applications, Accounting, Medical, Network, Web, Multimedia, Transportation, Flags, eCommerce.
  • Icon Plant – Vista, XP & others: Multimedia, Computers, Network, Insurance, Software, Travel, Telecommunications, Medical, Real Estate, Windows, Retail, Education, Website, and many others.

I know a lot of folks like to buy icons from iStockphoto – they have lots of icons there and they have a wide selection of styles, but those collections are usually much too small for the kinds of applications I work on.

A few things I always tell my clients:

  • Many icon artists just create an icon in Illustrator and then shrink it down to size. That works for most larger sizes, but not for 16×16 pixels or smaller, the sizes you would use in a list—make sure that the icons at that size are readable. An appropriately skilled icon artist will hand create the icons at 16×16 pixels.
  • When you are purchasing an icon collection, make sure you have a list of the actual icons you need and make sure that they appear in the set and that they are acceptable.
  • Using an existing style like Vista or XP means that there will be many more inexpensive icons for you to choose from and more artists. You can often mix and match icons from different sources and they will work together. Does it mean that your application has a less unique appearance? Perhaps – but you can develop your application’s unique appearance using visual elements other than icons.