Create Your Own Unique Icons

Icons have come a long way in the past decade, evolving from tiny, pixelated pictures into glossy, gorgeous artwork. Adding a custom icon to an application, document, or folder has evolved, too. You no longer need to use special utilities to build icons at tiny sizes; instead, you can take just about any photo or illustration and convert it into an icon.

Why customize your icons? At a basic level, you might just dislike or be bored with a specific icon and want to change it. Or you may want to create a custom icon to add character to a document or folder. Let's say you're preparing a folder full of illustrations to send to a potential client. This folder--an impromptu portfolio--would certainly look much more professional if the icon was your company logo.

In part one of this series, I'll outline the basics of icon customization in OS X; in part two, I'll talk about freeware and shareware utilities that can help you create custom icons.

The basics

Giving an application, document, or folder a custom icon is simply a matter of copy and paste. In this short tutorial, we'll customize a folder with an existing icon:

  • Go to the Finder, click the Desktop, and choose File ->New Folder.
  • Give the folder a name, such as Icon Tutorial.
  • Choose Go->Applications and locate Front Row (or any other application icon that appeals to you).
  • Click Front Row once to highlight it and then choose File->Get Info.
  • In the top left of the Get Info window, you'll see the application icon. Click it once and then choose Edit->Copy.
  • Close the Get Info window, return to the Desktop and locate the new folder you created. Click it once to highlight it and, as before, choose File->Get Info.
  • Click the blank folder icon in the top left and this time choose Edit->Paste.
  • Close the Get Info window and you'll see that your folder icon has been replaced with the Front Row icon.

You can revert to the standard folder icon at any time. Highlight the icon and choose File->Get Info. Once the window appears, click the custom icon in the top left and hit delete on your keyboard. (Applications and documents with custom icons can be returned to their default icons in the same manner.)

Don't feel as though you can only borrow icons from other files currently on your computer. You can find many free, professionally designed icons online from sites like The Iconfactory and Interfacelift. Once you've downloaded the icons, just follow the instructions above to paste them onto your favorite files and folders.

Make an icon from a photo

You can add a personal touch to any file by giving it a simple photo icon. Here, we'll create a custom icon using a picture in iPhoto '09 ( Macworld rated 4 out of 5 mice ).

  • Open iPhoto and locate an image you want to use as an icon. Select a photo from a regular album as opposed to a smart album.
  • Click the photo to highlight it and then choose Photos->Duplicate.
  • Click the Edit icon to enter the edit mode.
  • Click Crop and then, using the marquee, isolate the part of the photo you'd like to use as your icon (perhaps a toy or your child's face). You can constrain the crop as a square, though it's not necessary. When you're happy with the crop, click Apply.
  • Click Done to return to your library. The photo you've just cropped should still be highlighted. Choose Edit->Copy.
  • Return to the Finder and locate the file you want to customize. Click it once to highlight it and then choose File ->Get Info.
  • Click the icon in the top left and the choose Edit->Paste.
  • Close the window, and you'll see that you've successfully created a custom photo icon.

Make an icon from artwork

Building an icon from your own artwork is fun and can add finesse to your digital portfolio. In this final tutorial, we'll create a custom icon with Adobe Photoshop ( Macworld rated 4 out of 5 mice ).

The key thing to remember is that your artwork must have proper masking; otherwise, an icon of your company logo, for example, could end up with an awkward white background. Vector artwork imported into Photoshop typically has proper transparency and this will carry over to your final icon. However, if you have a flattened image file and you want to isolate part your artwork, you'll need to create a mask from scratch. (This technique is beyond the scope of this article; for assistance, please consult our Introduction to Masking article.)

  • Open your artwork in Adobe Photoshop CS3 or CS4. This can be a photo, a digital painting, or vector artwork. If you're opening an Adobe Illustrator file, choose Crop to->Art Box. Anti-alias and Constrain Proportions should remain checked, but depending upon the original size of your artwork, you may want to reduce the resolution 150 ppi.
  • Choose Image->Image Size. You must now reduce the artwork to a maximum of 512 pixels in either direction. Ensure that Constrain Proportions is checked and then enter 512 in either the width or height field (which ever has the largest number). Click OK.
  • Once your art has been resized, you'll need to merge any visible layers. Choose Layer->Merge Visible.
  • Choose File ->Save As. Now choose PNG as the format and save the file to the Desktop.
  • Locate the picture file on your Desktop. Double-click the file to open it in Preview and then choose Edit->Select All, followed by Edit ->Copy.
  • Flip back to the Finder and locate the file you want to customize. Click it once to highlight it and then choose File->Get Info.
  • Click the icon in the top left and the choose Edit->Paste.
  • After closing the window, you'll see that your new icon has a transparent background with clean, smooth edges.

Note that you can copy your icon artwork directly from Photoshop and paste it into Get Info. However, because of the way Photoshop copies layered content, the results can be unpredictable.

Stay tuned for part two of this series (which will run on March 11, 2010), in which I'll discuss some neat utilities to help you create unique icons.

[Chris McVeigh is an author, illustrator, and toy photographer based in Halifax, Nova Scotia.]

[Part two of this series runs on March 11, 2010.]

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