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Icons vs Logos: What’s the Difference?

Posted in Design By Tom Chu

When you enter into the world of graphic design on a professional level, you are expected to know certain things that the layman does not. For example, you should be aware that a font and a typeface are two different things. You should know the proper way to space lettering on a poster. You should have a good grasp of image placement for the most effective genre of poster…and that is only the beginning.

The subtleties in this line of work as extreme, because you are touching on so many different sources. Graphic design is artistic, creative, technical, technological and precise. Which is why when someone gets confused by something like the difference between logos and icons, it is understandable. The two are very similar, so it can be difficult to ascertain the little deviations that make each unique.

But they are not the same. We will start by taking a look at what each are:

What Is An Icon?

Icon

Unlike other representative items that are meant to be more broad, an icon is a way of showing off an abstract or direct concept, operation or idea. They are a way of creating an immediate, visual understanding between what the creator means and the viewer sees. In the end, they are there to help simplify something that might otherwise be difficult to get. Check out 17 Beautiful Social media Icon sets for Bloggers

What Is A Logo?

Apple logo

On the other hand, a logo is a way of conveying a relation to a business or event. It uses creative typeface and imagery to establish a link between the original idea and what you are seeing. You can think of it as an ideogram, or a simplified poster or ad. A logo is meant to immediately advertise the purpose of whatever it is representing. Check out 30 Creative Examples of Logo Design ideas

Technical Differences

The real difference between an icon and a logo comes in the technical aspects of the overall makeup. The tools and processes used to create both differ greatly. If there is ever any doubt about which you are looking at, you should be able to look at a few things to clear the confusion:

  • While logos are completely scalable, icons are not. The first is made to be able to adapt to different dimensions. You should be able to take the same first design and change the size, save it and move on to the next size.  An icon is made in either a 16×16 pixel or 256×256 pixel design. Neither of those will keep their resolution if you resize them. Instead, you would have to actually remake different versions in different dimensions to keep them crisp and defined.
  • An icon is made in a perfect square and much remain in those limits, while a logo has no shape boundaries. Icons are meant to fit into their little box, and they can not go outside of those boundaries. That is because they are made with technical restrictions and rules in mind. Logos don’t really have rules. If you can make it, you can use it.

At the end of the day, it isn’t that difficult to understand the difference between logos and icons. Once you know the general rules you should be able to easily pick them out of a crowd.

8 comments
JPK
JPK

@Suraj Thank you so much! You have made my day.

JPK
JPK

@Suraj, awesome, thanks. So it seems that a logo applies more to an organization identity than an app... but in the case of Angry Birds it is an app, but it is used for much more. So if I am just a basic small guy developer, and I use an enhanced license for an image on a stock photo site without buying the rights (because they are not selling them), I should be okay? Of course then somebody could use my image, but that is a risk that I take, right? Ideally I would buy but I am already using an image and it just occurred to me that I might be in violation. But they say as long as it is not a logo I am okay...

JPK
JPK

@Suraj, thanks for the quick reply. Are you certain about that? What if then, your app gets featured by Apple and the image ends up in the App Store or in iTunes on a large banner... then is it a logo?

JPK
JPK

Would you say that the image you tap on an iPhone to open an app is a logo or an icon? This is a question I just cannot seem to find the answer to..

Suraj
Suraj moderator

@JPK you are welcome! :)

Suraj
Suraj moderator

@JPK yes you are right, as long as you are not using that image for your business as a brand identity or logo it's OK.

Suraj
Suraj moderator

@JPK as logo definition is 'A symbolic design adopted by an organization to identify its products, uniform, vehicles, etc' so we can consider few of those images as logo, Angry Birds is best example.