App Icons are Itty Bitty Banner Ads

An old blog post I wrote last year about a decades old humor article on icon design is actually remarkably relevant to today’s App Store market.

Years ago, Apple published a developer magazine. I don’t even remember the name of it, but it covered various topics on programming on the Mac or Apple II, but it would also occasionally have humor articles. One in particular stuck with me.

The author said that when you are getting ready to start developing your application, the single most important thing to do is you need to develop a killer icon. The desktop icon could make or break your application and it really should be your first priority.

As humorous a suggestion as it was, I think what I found most amusing was that there was a slight bit of truth to it… or at least it didn’t come from that ridiculous a place in the mind of the developer.

As much as this was a big joke for Mac applications, I think it’s a pretty accurate view of the importance of App Store icons. I’ve often been asked my opinion why certain games seem to just take off in the App Store. Some seemingly simple games just seem to rocket to the top. What could it be?

While the type of game is certainly important, it seems pretty clear that a good icon and a good screenshot are the main impact you have on casual App Store shoppers.

The same question can be asked of what causes an app to skyrocket to the top 10 when featured by Apple? Apple is basically giving you an itty bitty banner ad in the most trafficked area of iTunes and your icon is what represents your app. It seems obvious this is going to make a difference in attracting potential customers.

These suspicions were corroborated by one small focus group study of iPhone usage published late last year. Comments by this small group of individuals indicated that icon design was pretty important in deciding what app to get:


I think that many developers have already realized the importance of their icon but are they really looking at it as scientifically as they could?

I’d think that a really serious iPhone developer would spend time working on a variety of icon designs and try to figure out which has the highest click through rate when lumped on a page with other icons.

These sort of A/B testing trials are done all the time with regular banner ads. Click through rates can vary substantially between different banner designs. And the most clickable designs aren’t always immediately obvious. For example, color choices alone can make a big difference in banner ads click through rates. And when dealing with featured App Store positioning, I’d think that a small percentage increase in click through rates could make a substantial difference in sales.

I’m not sure where such an experiment could take place, but it does raise some interesting possibilities.

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15 Responses to App Icons are Itty Bitty Banner Ads

  1. Josh Rosen says:

    So true.

    For me, the TA forums have been a HUGE help with the icon design. I thought my icon was almost done when I started a feedback thread… 150 posts and 5 completely different iterations later, I realized that wasn’t the case 😛

    For games specifically, I think the question of wether or not to think of your icon as a ‘logo’ or as traditional ‘box art’ is interesting.

  2. wow thankyou for your post. really helpful.

  3. Seth says:

    I’d say that the icon is the biggest expression of the app’s brand. The logo. Almost like the favicon in importance/pixel ratio

  4. Doctor Q says:

    The MacRumors “Big Bunny Bundle” ( was created as a joke but the icons were designed by professional artists, and their quality showed.

    No matter how good a real application is, a bad icon can sink it.

  5. Khang Toh says:

    I think app icons for the iPhone is like the “face” of your app and absolutely help sells your app, other than getting mentioned on touchArcade. 😉

    For PocketGod, I really like how the icon changes with every update. It was a clue to what was new to the update and that itself was part of the game, trying to figure the new stuff without going to open feint leaderboard or googling what’s new

  6. Jon Myers says:

    Agreed. I likened the App Icon to the album cover. It’s an important detail that we took really serious for our soon to be released game.

    We used two different methods for testing different treatments for our App Icon. One we used Facebook ads with targeted keywords and measured CTRs. Once we had some design clarity and further data/ direction we used Twitter as a quick means to get instant feedback on the App Icon.

    Oddly enough our initial instincts on the App Icon were dead wrong. The testing, transparency and real-time feedback were a crucial piece to the process and helped us get what we believe is an Icon that best represents our game.

  7. Dang says:

    When I’m browsing through the App Store I am looking at the most attractive Icons. They usually catch my attention and lead me to clicking on it to see more. The second part is the screen shots.

    Pocket God always updates their icons on every new update. That is the method that we are approaching also.

    It’s all about presentation!

  8. Nijel says:

    Excellent observation. i absolutely agree with you. when I’m browsing the app store good icons always get my attention, and bad ones kinda signal “hey, we don’t care about our application at all, that’s why we have an ugly icon. check us out” = AVOID.

    your icon is your app as a cover is to a book. it’s really not accurate to judge a book by it’s cover, but most people do it anyway.

  9. This was a really interesting read. Thanks!

    I guess the overall quality of iPhone Apps is getting better, and users are expecting more and more, hence we cannot get away with not doing things right. It is actually quite nice that the bars are being raised, as we went from the app store being blue ocean, to a more murky red ocean market.

    Thanks again,

    Peter Hartwig

  10. Vinny says:

    Great article! Screen shots are another area that I think developers overlook too often. It doesn’t matter how great a game is if you can’t get it noticed…icons and screen shots are what give people a first impression, so devs really need to make those count!

  11. Pingback: LeftRight Studios » Icons are the face of your iPhone apps

  12. Great article. Unfortunately, looking through some of the banner-ads on T.A. these days it seems some developers don’t even treat their banner-ads like banner-ads. Meaning: They seem to spend months perfecting their games and when they’re finished they spend 20 minutes throwing something together with whatever artwork they have laying around. OK, a bit harsh I admit, but it saddens me when developers don’t respect their own apps enough to make a decent ad. :/

  13. InTheUnion says:

    I’ve been thinking for a while that the iPhone home screen looks a lot like the album cover from the Beatles’ “A Hard Day’s Night”. Just a fun possibility really…

    After all, Steve Jobs is a Beatles fan.

  14. We might as well come out say it, we don’t like “banner ads” that much. Then again, its not like we have a fondness for billboards on the side of the highway either. Its just that sometimes they can get in our way as a pop up advertisement, or slow down a web page. In the world of banner advertisements, most people suffer from “banner blindness,” which means we can basically see an ad flickering below and ignore it.

  15. Flicker is really great when sharing photos over friends and families. I love the resize feature of Flickr.,*-

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