Creating icons is one of the biggest challenges in terms of visual design nowadays. An icon has the power to communicate something very quickly and in order to do that, it needs to be thought out and designed with the utmost accuracy.
This tutorial will show you how to create a 3D-looking icon, adding fine details and shadows, using textures and making the illustration very realistic with gradients and lights. At the end of the tutorial it will be hard to say which software you used to create the icon because of its depth and stunning look and feel.
Despite not being updated in Adobe’s CC launch last summer, designer Fabio Benedetti says that Fireworks is the best design tool for creating icons such as these – and you still get Fireworks CS6 with your Creative Cloud subscription. However, you can also achieve the results shown in this tutorial in Illustrator.
Fabio says that he finds Fireworks offers the best mix of tools for combining raster and vector graphics easily. Fireworks also allows you to achieve pixel-perfect results in a relatively short time – its simple interface makes the design workflow pleasant and straight-forward.
Time to complete
4 to 5 hours
Fireworks CS6 or later, Photoshop CS6 or later, Illustrator CS6 or later
The supporting files for this tutorial can be downloaded from here
Open Fireworks (or Illustrator) and set up your canvas. For icon design, a good resolution is 1,024 x 1,024px – more than enough for even the highest-resolution screen.
However you can design your icon to a lower resolution and scale it up later. As we are dealing with vector shapes, it will be easy enough to adapt them to a new size later on.
Set up the canvas colour to the value #D3D3D3, which will give you enough of a contrast with the white of the envelope while you’re designing.
Let’s start by creating simple shapes: a rectangle with rounded corners for the main part of the envelope and a triangle for the flap.
Select the Rectangle tool (U) and draw a rectangle sized 507 by 360px. In the Properties panel, set the roundness of the rectangle at 3%. If you want more precision, you can change the value from % to px.
Then, select the pen tool (P) and start tracing. For the flap, trace a shape that looks like the triangle shown here, with two rounded corners.
Copy and paste the triangle shape. Select the top-most of the duplicated shapes, right click, and select the Transform > Flip Horizontal.
At this point, you should have two symmetrical shapes. Align them to the vertical side of the triangle. Open the Path panel.
Select Union Paths from the Combine Path set of tool. The two shapes will merge into one.
You may have to adjust a few anchor points to make the outline smoother.
Trace the other parts of the envelope using a similar process. Copy and paste similar shapes and use the Flip Horizontal function as in Step 3.
For example, to make the inner border of the top of the envelope you just need to copy and paste the triangle shape and scale it down (Cmd/Ctrl + Shift + T) to 88%.
Now it’s time to start adding a bit of colour and shading to the icon.
Use the Rectangle tool and create a column of red and blue squares. Group them (Cmd/Ctrl + G), then cut and paste them inside the vector shape (Cmd/Ctrl + Shift + V)
Adding gradients is one of the most important things to get right to make the icon look real.
Use the Gradient tool to make the bottom of the envelope looks realistic. Use the linear gradient at 270°.
Add more tones to the gradient to make it more realistic: #FFFFF at 0%, #EDECEA at 7%, #FFFFF at 37%, #DDDDDD at 85% and #F6F4F3 at 97%.
Play with the position of these until you are happy with the result.
It’s now time to add some texture. First off, add some noise to the gradient (Filter > Add noise, with an Amount of 2).
While this makes the envelope look more realistic, it needs some paper texture to complete the look. Find some paper texture on the web or in your image library.
Copy the vector shape and paste the texture into the shapes. Give each object a 50% opacity and a Lighten blending mode in the Properties panel, so that the texture will show the gradient shape underneath.
Now your envelope should start taking shape: with the paper texture and the gradients on the various components, the artwork is starting to look real – but we need to make the inside of the envelope darker like this to give it depth.
You’ll find out how in the next step.
Set up a gradient for the inner part of the envelope that goes to #B1C2C6 to #7B8E90.
Go to the Properties panel and click on the Texture drop-down menu. Select Paper 02 and put the value at 50%. This will apply a nice simple paper effect to the inner part of the envelope.
Now we need to start focusing on the details to make the icon even more realistic.
Add some shadows underneath the various vector components of the envelope. Instead of using the drop shadow from the Filter menu, create a more realistic shadow using a vector shape that matches the shape of where you want your shadow to appear. Colour it black in the Properties panel, then select Feather from the Edge drop-down menu. Give it a value of 10.
Now we can add some fun details to the icon. As these require more precise drawing tools, we’ll be moving over to Illustrator.
Open Illustrator. Create a stamp using the Ellipse tool (L) by drawing four circles of different diameter around the same central point.
Use the Pen tool (P) to draw a smooth line, which will be part of the tail of the stamp.
Duplicate the line eight times.
Select all the lines, group them (Cmd/Ctrl + G) and go to Effect > Warp > Arc.
In the resulting dialog, use the value: Horizontal Arc, Blend 12%, Distortion Horizontal 14%, Vertical 10%. This will make the stamp look more realistic.
Add some fun details with text on a path saying something like ‘North Pole, Santa Claus’. Press Cmd/Ctrl + Shift + Alt + S to Export for Web. Save it as a PNG.
Open Photoshop CS6 and import the PNG that you saved in Illustrator. Now you can tweak the stamp and make it a bit grungier or worn-out, using the Eraser tool.
Choose a grungy brush, set the opacity at 50% and start deleting parts of the stamp.
Now export the PNG again and move back to Fireworks to finish the icon. Turn the North pole stamp red by using Filter > Colour Fill > Red.
Also add some light shading to the top part of the envelope to give a more realistic look. To do this use gradients and transparency as done previously.
Adding little details (with a bit of fun) will make your icon look beautifully de-signed.
Create a letter to pop into your envelope. Write the text of the letter to Santa, using a non-cheesy script font, and apply a paper texture as in previous steps.
Ensure you add some shadow behind the paper to make it stand out even more.
To make your icon perfect: refine, refine, refine. The final polish work is fundamental.
Give the icon a subtle background; add some shadowing here and there where needed – including a shadow behind the whole envelope to give the whole icon more depth.
You can also use your custom icon on your Mac. Download iConvertIcons and convert your png into a proper desktop icon.