I'm working on a project that often needs small (16x16, rarely 32x32), simple, bespoke icons (either made from scratch or as slight modifications of other icons).

Working on a Windows box, I end up using--of all things--MS Paint, because it lets me edit pixels individually. But this is approximately like carving the icon out of a block of stone.

What tools do you use? What makes them good for icon creation? How much do they cost?

  • 2
    There's plenty of free software available to Windows. Inkscape, Paint .NET, GIMP, etc.
    – Hanna
    Commented Sep 15, 2011 at 19:17

2 Answers 2


There is nothing particularly special about making icons - they're just bitmaps on small canvases. And there’s certainly no need to submit yourself to the torture of MSPAINT (which should be reserved for free-handing intentionally bad drawings. ;-) ).

Depending on your budget, I would suggest these programs:

  • Paint.Net (free!)
    Relatively simple & easy to use. Feels like MSPaint with enhancements. Good free program.

  • Photoshop ($700)
    King of the hill, but priced accordingly. You can do just about anything with Photoshop.

Other programs that are commonly used (but I don't personally use):

  • The GIMP (free!)
    I find the interface confusing and obtuse, but this could be the result of years of Photoshop training me to work a certain way. Many people swear by this program. S.gfx also pointed out that has many advanced features and allows saving as ico. Even if not chosen as primary editor, it is a good idea to have it installed.

  • CorelDraw ($325)
    I know that people use this program, I just don't know people that use this program.

If you want to create icons that will easily scale to future monitor resolutions (which seem to always be increasing), you'll want to create in a vector-based design program:

  • Inkscape (free!)
    I've only toyed around with this but it looks cool. There are some cool examples in their gallery.

  • Illustrator ($600)
    Like Photoshop, this one is the big dog of vector programs and, like Photoshop, its price tag reflects this.

If you need a program to convert your bitmaps to ICO files, IcoFX is great and it has a shareware version. Update: I forgot to mention (because it's not part of my workflow), IcoFX also has editing capabilities so you can create an icon from scratch without using any other programs. Interface is similar to MSPaint or Paint.NET.

  • 2
    +1 for appropriate use of "MS Paint" and "torture" in the same sentence. :-) Commented Sep 16, 2011 at 2:02
  • +1 such a nice answer, nice information nice formatting too good and informative
    – Jack
    Commented Sep 16, 2011 at 7:04
  • 1
    Gimp allows saving as ico...I am neither big fan of the UI, but the thing is it really has quite some advanced features. Even if not chosen as primary editor, I'd advice to have it installed. As a better GUI, yes, Paint.net, but Gimp has a lot of functionality. IcoFX is not freeware anymore, is 59 bucks shareware. Yet though, freeware previous versions are pretty usable. I'd buy it (even only for mac 512x512 res.), is quite a pro tool for the icon features support. But if not willing to use money here, for ico stuff I'd choose maybe Gimp, at least for exporting.(you can do the sizes as layers)
    – S.gfx
    Commented Sep 16, 2011 at 8:15
  • @S.gfx Thanks for pointing that out. I haven't downloaded IcoFX in a while (3 cheers for a program that doesn't crash or need updates). $59 is definitely worthwhile...
    – Farray
    Commented Sep 16, 2011 at 14:47
  • Yeah, I'm not a fan of The Gimp, but then, I haven't tried it in nearly a decade... Commented Sep 21, 2011 at 15:08

Junior Icon Editor is a nice free version (if you can withstand the splash screens).

Greenfish Icon Editor Pro is also a free version.

  • +1 for Greenfish Icon Editor Pro. It is very powerful, and has everything you need for creating icons.
    – Aᵂᴱ
    Commented Oct 17, 2012 at 12:55

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