As much as you may hate the phrase “Web 2.0”, you have to admit, websites and web applications look a helluva lot better now than they did just a few years ago. But what if you’re a better programmer than you are a designer?

Naturally, if you develop for a company, one might hope that your crack-team of graphic designers could come up with customized icons for your applications. But sometimes that doesn’t happen, or sometimes you’re flying solo with a great idea for a web app.

We all know that bad things happen when designers try to program, and equally bad things happen when programmers try to design – assuming you’re not one of the handful of people who actually can wear both hats with some success.

Icon Search Engines

There are several free icon search engines that can quickly help you find the icons you’re looking for so you can spend more time developing your kickass software and less time trying to find the perfect icon to use in your user interface. These icon search engines allow you to narrow your search results by specific size, which is great if you’re trying to find a set of various icons that look similar and will all fit within your design specs.

The first two in this list are the first places I go to find a specific icon for a user interface.

IconFinder

Search through over 120,000 icons and many icon sets, lets you filter search results dynamically based on the sizes you need, and you can filter by license and background color. They almost always have a png and an ico version available. This search engine is my favorite because it has the most options, and very high quality images.
iconfinder-logo

IconLook

They don’t mention how big their database of files are, but they also let you filter your search results on icon size. They do not allow you to filter by file type, and often do not have multiple formats available.
iconlook-logo

Iconlet

No mention of how many files they have, and image results tend to be lower quality, but they do have a lot of very small icon images, if that’s what you’re looking for. No ability to filter results on the fly, but the advanced search gives you more options for file type and image size, and they do have a handy search plugin. www.iconlet.com

VeryIcon

Search a database of over 20,000 icons in ico and png format. Their database is smaller than IconFinder, but they seem to have more specialized icons easily discoverable, for example, their World Places set featuring the Eiffel tower, or aquatic set complete with scuba diver icon. These are likely meant for desktop icons, but could be easily adapted. www.veryicon.com

Large Icon Collections

These don’t offer search, or when they do, it’s unimpressive at best, but their variety in specialized collections is worth a mention.

FreeIconsWeb

The search functionality on this site is less than awesome, but their sets are well organized, so if you’re looking for themed icons, this might be worth your time. It’s a bit of a clunky site, but they do have some nice icons. It wouldn’t be my go-to for standard web icons, but good to have as an option. www.freeiconsweb.com

VistaIcons

This is a nice collection of very slick, Vista style icons available in ico and png formats, organized by collection. www.vistaicons.com

I should mention that I’ve opted not to include many of the desktop icon sites – there are dozens, and many of them are great, but they often only offer ico versions of their images, and it can be a pain to convert many images just to use them in a UI.

Converting ICO to PNG

If you happen to find a desktop icon on a site that is only available in .ico format that you’d like to use online, there are online tools available that make it easy to convert from ico to png, and from png to ico (in case you want to use a snazzy png as your desktop icon). I’m sticking with online tools for this to avoid the Mac vs. PC vs. Linux issues 🙂

DISCLAIMER: I cannot speak for the legitimacy of the licenses in these sites. I haven’t heard anything about them screwing over artists and stealing work they were not allowed to use in their databases or collections, but I obviously do not endorse any site that does that.

Where do you go for icons? Leave your secret sources in the comments.

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I’m a tech geek/dev/infosec-nerd/scuba diver/blacksmith/sword-fighter/crime fighter/ENTP/warcrafter/activist. I'm the CTO at Mass Mosaic and the CEO of Grokability, Inc. in San Diego, CA. Tweet at me @snipeyhead or read more...