I understand that Tab icons can be helpful from a UI perspective, to make it easier to navigate around a number of different types of records in the sidebar etc.

However, for my use case (a custom object, custom tab, custom controller and VF page with enhancedList property showing a list of the object records created), I don't want to have a custom tab because it seems like extra 'noise' and the existing icons all look 'cartoonish'. I had tried creating my own logo with the text of the object, but due to pixelation it looked awful. I haven't tried yet with a .SVG file though.

It seems that the icon is indeed a mandatory field. Short of creating and uploading an 'icon' that literally just has a white background, is there a way around this?

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No, the icon is definitely required. Salesforce wants the UI to be consistent, and not having an icon would be inconsistent. If you're not satisfied with the Classic icons, though, why not choose one from from the Salesforce Lightning Design System, which look a lot more modern than their predecessors. It'll feel a bit out of place in Classic, perhaps, but it'll fit right in with Salesforce1 and Lightning.

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