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How To Use Icons To Support Content In Web Design

Why use icons? Design is all about communication: it doesn’t matter how important or exciting the information that you’re sharing is if you fail to hook your visitors. When initially viewing a website, most users will first scan the page for visually interesting content, and only after something grabs their attention will they actually begin reading. Icons are a simple, effective way to draw users into the content of your website.

Icons serve the same psychological purpose as paragraph breaks: they visually break up the content, making it less intimidating. A well-formatted page, with text broken into easily accessible paragraphs and accented by icons, is easy to read and visually interesting enough to sustain the user’s attention. So, stop wasting time writing so much content that no one will read, and start using icons!

In this article we showcase beautiful examples and best practices of using icons to support content in web design. Please feel free to take a look at the showcases of navigation menus1, search boxes2, blockquotes3 and web forms4.

1. How To Use Icons Link

The primary goal of using icons should be to help the user absorb and process information more efficiently. This is usually done by using a lot of white space and using icons that don’t distract from the content but rather augment it. Using icons well enriches even minimal content by giving it more substance, enabling effective communication without wordiness. Icons should be used to draw attention to your content, not to diminish or replace it.

Spice up feature lists Link

Listing services is a practical and necessary part of effective marketing, but lists are inherently bland and boring. Using icons in conjunction with your feature lists will make them more engaging.

280 Slides

Draw attention to new features in a Web application Link

Icons are a visual invitation to users to try out the latest and greatest features of your Web application. Icons should capture your users’ attention and direct them to the new feature. Once you’ve grabbed their attention, tell them just what makes the new feature so great.



List different applications and products Link

In this case, think of the icon as a logo, keeping in mind that the goal of a logo is to build a mental association between a product and a particular image. The icon should be unique but simple: most icons are only 128 by 128 pixels, so take a minimalist approach and say more with less.



List your services and increase readability Link

Icons should be relevant to the content and simple in design. Consider what you are trying to express with the content and create the icon based on that. What is the theme of the website or article? What colors are used? What is the style? Modern? Classic? Icons should visually unify the ideas expressed in the content and in the personality of the website as a whole.

J. Alexander Woodworking9


2. Purpose And Placement Link

Icons make your website friendly, inviting and professional, showing that you care about even the smallest details. Get creative with your icons: headers, sidebars, titles and feature lists are all great places to put them.

Accent headers to give titles a creative touch Link

A very simple icon can add charm and personality to a website.



Engage readers on pages with extra long content Link

Use an icon that encapsulates the point you are trying to get across in your paragraph. This will make the text more accessible to your readers.



Offset headings and sections Link

Use icons to provide a visually stimulating point of separation between different sections of text.

Defined Clarity15


Size doesn’t matter! Even small icons can be effective Link

Small icons provide the same level of visual interest as large ones, but without the potential to be distracting. Make sure that the icons are easily recognizable and relate closely to the content that they are accenting.

Morgan Hayes17


Switch things up by placing icons to the right of the paragraph Link

Don’t get stuck in a rut with your icon placement. Putting icons on the right is less common and will therefore be more visually striking. Beware, though, as this placement can sometimes look messy.

South Creative19


Vary size and placement of icons Link

Get creative! Changing the size and placement of icons will make the content appear more dynamic and interesting.

Media Temple21


3. Choose Your Style Link

When it comes to style, aim to be effective. If your design is supposed to be unique, then original icons are good, but being effective is far more important. Remember, icons are used to enhance your content and design, so it is especially important to pay attention to how your icons match the rest of your website. Don’t simply purchase a cool-looking set of icons from iStockPhoto. Rather, take into account the style of your website.

It is also crucial that all of your icons match. Grouping mismatched icons, no matter how cool they are individually, is a glaring design mistake and very unprofessional. Here are some examples of icons effectively integrated in the style of their respective websites:

Using light colors and cool 3-D designs complements the look and feel of this website:


Simplicity is attractive and practical, as shown in this example:


Using a grungy style on otherwise 2-D icons can add a lot of depth:
Take the Walk27


Choosing a unique and consistent style is both dynamic and professional:


Monochromatic icons can help accent content without being distracting:
Studio 7 Designs31


Use the power of suggestion to transform screenshots with simple gradients into unique icons:

Don’t use icons just because they look cool; choose ones that really match your style and brand:

4. Additional Examples Link

Here is a gallery of websites that use icons effectively. Hopefully, these will inspire you to better use icons on your own website.

WP Remix





Ruby Tuesday35


Transmission Apps

Charity Water37




QBB Help41


Euro Languages

Joomla Designs43


The Designs45


Midnight Apps47


Mach 4

WordPress Designers



Wallpaper Script51


Lee Munroe53


Dallas Usability Professionals55


Light CMS57




Digital Mash61



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SmashingConf Barcelona 2016

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Nathan Barry is the founder of ConvertKit, an email marketing application, as well as the author of The App Design Handbook and Designing Web Applications. His latest book, Authority, teaches authors how to profit from self-publishing.

  1. 1

    Really useful, and insightful advice…thanks SM.

    edit: can hardly believe I’m the first commenter – i feel honoured

  2. 2

    Peter Urban

    March 3, 2009 3:40 pm

    Great post. Same is true with using icons to design effective web applications. We are jut going though a design improvement phase with our apps an found that it is critical to find the right mix (in terms of amount and style) between icons and simple links.

  3. 3

    Thanks a lot for the information
    Its a really nice blog

    Keep It Up !!

  4. 4

    Really nice showcase of thoughtful icon usage.

  5. 5

    Great post, and I do agree that icons do help bring attention to paragraphs, especially when they need to highlight important changes or information to the user.

    Though I would say that be careful, I have seen a lot of sites out there use icons (and just icons) for navigation. Not even a rollover would come up and tell me where it goes, I had to look at the status bar.

    Great article and a nice inspiration piece too.

  6. 6

    Great collection, although the Joomla! Designs link is broken.

  7. 7

    Really really nice collection, thanks

  8. 8

    Awesome article Nathan, great job showing how useful icons are in displaying content to users.

  9. 9

    Anna @crinkled

    March 3, 2009 4:55 pm

    I love the way icons look on the web when used effectively. In addition to the accenting content, they allow the site to become less of a “website” and more of a “useful tool”, with design elements of an application. I love that.

  10. 10

    I need to preface this by saying I love Smashing. Now that I’ve made that declaration, I have a small gripe.

    I read most of your posts on my iPhone while commuting. In fact, I’m posting this comment from the back of a bus. That being the case, I’m often reading on a smaller screen with liter bandwidth. Posts such as this one practically crash my device because they are so graphics heavy. Andthey take forever to load.

    I’ll probably get bashed for asking, but might you be able limit your feeds so they don’t send the whole post to rss readers? This has the added benefit of increasing pageviews on your site. Frankly, it just seems like good business for you and a better experience for you readers.

  11. 11

    no mention of favicons? even just two sentences with links to your great favicon posts?

  12. 12

    I went icon-crazy in my application, Marketo.
    Video to see:

    Using the V-Collection from iconExperience.

  13. 13

    Wow, Cool and usefull Post !
    Smashing Mag really rox !

  14. 14

    Nathan Barry

    March 3, 2009 8:10 pm

    Thanks everyone for the kind comments. Do you have any other favorite examples of icons in use?

    @Michael This post was focused on how icons relate to content. Since favicons are separate from the content, I decided not to mention them in this article.

  15. 15

    Very useful article….

  16. 16


    March 3, 2009 8:35 pm

    Great information I have been working on building my own webpage but was completely lost. Thanks

  17. 17

    Excellent article. I definitely don’t use icons enough in my designs. My next project I will.

    Tip: When using icons in your designs, keep related icons a consistent size & use consistent, proportional spacing around your icons, as well.


  18. 18

    Dan Whitmore

    March 3, 2009 9:01 pm

    Fantastic post, thanks for this!

  19. 19

    The kind of article I wanted just now..really smashing.

  20. 20

    cool icons, hot designs


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