Icon Sets: 5 questions to ask before you buy or download

Icon Sets; 5 things to know before you buy

Back before I started eLearningArt, I worked on a consulting project in a niche industry that had a limited supply of useful stock images. Given our budget, conducting a custom photo-shoot was out of the question. On the other end of the spectrum, we also didn’t want the unprofessional feel of using mismatched clipart. Instead, we developed our own set of matching icon images to use throughout the series of courses. Here are some of the lessons that I learned on that project and continue to hold true.

Here is a video that outines the 5 questions to ask before you buy icons:

Are the sets a single, matching style?

One of the biggest differentiators between a professional-feeling and amateur-feeling course is visual consistency. In my opinion, it matters less what style of image (realistic photos, clipart, etc) and more that the themes match throughout your course. For example, if you’re going to use clipart, that’s fine, but use the same style. Don’t mix and match.

mismatching vs. matching icons

Do the icons convey meaning?

Since an icon, as Scott McCloud points out in one of my favorite books Understanding Comics, is “any image used to represent a person, place, thing or idea,” it makes sense that you would want that icon to convey the meaning of the person, place, thing, or idea that you intend. I’ll bet if I show you these three icons below, you can instantly guess the meaning I’m trying to convey.

eLearning icon uses


In case you’re wondering, I was trying to convey a play button, danger sign, and nurse. All three of these icons could be used in different ways. The play button could be used for functionally as a navigation button, the wireless icon is symbolic of danger, and the nurse represents a character that I could use to tell a visual story.

What will you do if icons are missing?

Missing icon in set

Here is a reality check when you’re looking to find the “perfect” icon set: there will be at least a few icons that you’d like that aren’t part of the set. What’s your plan with how you’re going to fill in the missing gaps? Most of us plug it with a mismatching icon from another set. But that breaks the visual consistency of a matching set that I discussed above.

Ideally, you can create a new icon that both conveys the meaning you’re looking for and matches the style you created. And unless that you’re a graphic designer (or can hire one), that will only be possible if you choose a simple icon style. In the example above, I liked the style of the icon, but wanted to create my own. I’m no graphic designer, but this style was simple enough for me to create a bike on my own. Here’s a video of how I created my own icon in PowerPoint.

Create an icon in PowerPoint lesson 1 of 2

Create an icon in PowerPoint lesson 2 of 2

When we build our icon image sets at eLearningArt, we support the set for a year after purchase and will create custom icons for customers in order to fill in the gaps. If you’re purchasing elsewhere, make sure you come up with a plan for how to create the missing icons, because there are bound to be some.

Will you have access to an editable version?

It’s easy to overlook this one, especially if you’re not a graphic designer. For example, I have no clue how to use Illustrator or Flash, so why do I care if I get the source files? Well, there are a few reasons:

Do you have a vector format of the images?

It’s really important to make sure that you have access to a vector file type. If you’re working with only non-vector, you can run into some sizing and degradation issues. For example, in Microsoft, EMF files are great, or if they were created as vector images in Flash or Illustrator, you’ll be in good shape too.

Where you can get icons

We offer a few simple icon image styles on our retail site. They’re also part of our eLearning image and template subscription that gives you access to these and thousands of other useful images and templates.

You don’t have to buy from us; there are a ton of icons available on all of the stock photo sites and some free sites as well. Just make sure you obtain the proper licenses and consider the 5 points above when picking your icons. You’ll be happy to have planned ahead. Happy icon hunting!

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