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  3. Icon Editors: The Software You'll Need
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Icon Editors: The Software You'll Need

Dozens of utilities exist for creating and modifying Windows and Macintosh icons; Table 1 provides an overview of easy-to-use, feature-rich, and popular choices.

Table 1 — Windows Applications for Creating Icons



IconCool Editor












Trial Version

Free 30-day trial version

Free 30-day trial version

Limited-feature trial version

Free 30-day trial version

Image Effects

Styles include gradients, 3D and fill effects, mirrors and rotations, and color replacement.

Enhanced gradients, chess fill, drop shadow, grayscale, roll and mirror effects.

Over 20 styles, including gradients, 3D effects, and rotation.

Features color gradients, dodge and burn capabilities, and intelligent anti-alias operations.

Supported File Formats

Import external .jpg or .bmp images into the icon image. You can modify .exe, .dll, .cpl, .ocx, .vbx, and .drv files.

Can import .ico, .bmp, .jpg, .ani, .cur, .wmf, and .png files. Export icon images to .ico, .bmp, .jpg, and .png.

Can convert images in 25 formats; extract icons from .exe, .dll, and .icl files.

Can import native Photoshop (.psd) and bitmap (.bmp) files.

Library capabilities?

Yes; you can compile a library into a self-executable (.exe) file.

Yes; you can search, create, edit, import and export icons, and manage icon libraries.

Needs a related tool, Icon Cool icon library manager, purchased separately or bundled for $29.95.

Yes; you can organize and view icon libraries and program files with the Librarian module.


Includes an impressive set of editing and painting tools. Offers scaling and conversion options that simplify copying-and-pasting images from any application and incorporating into an icon.

Up to 16 levels of undo/redo.

Enables you to scan files and folders for icons.

Includes a 100-level undo/redo function.

Includes a one-click option to add Windows XP-specific drop shadows.

In addition, a Windows version of the popular IconBuilder program is newly available; a review of its features is covered in the Macintosh icon editors listed in Table 2.

All of the Windows tools selected here include support for creating and editing Windows XP icons. Similarly, the Macintosh icon editors covered in Table 2 all include support for building Mac OS X icons.

Table 2 — Macintosh Applications for Creating Icons

IconBuilder Pro










$15 shareware fee

$25 shareware fee

Image Effects

By leveraging Photoshop's superior image editing capabilities, design capabilities are nearly limitless.

Can apply masks, QuickTime effects. Supports anti-aliasing; line thickness support.

Includes a Photoshop-like set of drawing and painting tools.

Supported File Formats

Can create icons for all Mac OS releases. Can incorporate imagery from any of the dozens of graphic file formats supported by Adobe Photoshop.

Can handle classic Mac OS (8-bit icons only), Mac OS 8.5+ (32-bit icons with 8-bit masks), Mac OS X (128 x 128 icons in .icns files), Windows and Windows XP (.ico files), and Mac OS X Server (48 x 48 icons in .tiff files)

Can create icons for all Mac OS releases.


Iconfactory's IconBuilder functions as a Photoshop plug-in — so naturally, Photoshop is required. A QuickConvert feature lets you easily change Macintosh icons to Windows and vice versa.

A consumer version called IconBuilder Lite ($29) is also available; it does not include QuickConvert or the ability to create 128 x 128 pixel icons for Mac OS X or .ico icons for Windows.

Includes extensive HTML-based documentation and help tags/balloon help.

Multiple levels of undo, limited only by available memory. Japanese and French versions are also available.

Japanese version is also available.

These software resources — as well as the guidelines, tutorials, and icon collections mentioned here and in Part 1 of the article — will take you far in producing an integrated and professional-looking set of icons for your next user interface project. Once you're satisfied with your results, nothing beats actual user testing with folks who are seeing your project's interface for the first time. Wherever feasible, enlist a new user to view your composites and verbalize where they might expect to end up after clicking each of your icons. Their feedback should validate your artistic direction, or gently prompt you to spend more time at the electronic drawing board!

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