vincent

in Icon design

Interview with Vincent Le Moign

Vincent is a very busy man. He is the engine behind Agiledesigners, Minicons and Fontastic. He went from freelancing to creating one of the most popular icon sets online, the Minicons. Now he’s working on several interesting tool for designers – all with the same goal; to increase productivity.

After looking at all of the projects Vincent has going on, I wonder how he manages to find the time and energy to do it all. And I wonder if he ever sleeps. We’re going to find out more about Vincent’s design work and his various projects in this week’s interview.
vincent

Hello, Vincent. How are you?

Hi Scott! I’m fine. The sun is shining in Thailand, I’ve got a full mug of coffee ready, and the last Daft Punk LP playing in my headset. Good to work at home!
home2

You are an interface designer, icon designer, and entrepreneur, who is currently building several design-oriented web tools. Judging from the projects you’re involved in, I imagine you’re a busy man. Did I miss anything?

I wish I could have more time and learn how to code too.

Since 1999 I was a print and web designer. I have been specializing in interface design since 2006. Interface design for startup and software companies was far more interesting, more rewarding, and pays better than the classic design jobs. It’s a great niche market.
Ask Sacha Greif.

Then 3 years ago, I started to create my own products for designers: vector icons, vector ornaments … More by chance than by passion. I was amazed by the feedback and income, so I dropped all of my last customers to fully commit to my products.

I’m now living 100% from the income generated by my vector products: Minicons and Vectorian.

I’m now living 100% from the income generated by my vector products: Minicons and Vectorian. And I’m working on 2 web applications for print and web designers, with this motto: Give tools to improve productivity and deliver on time. I’m the designer, but I’m hiring developers to code it.

Would you mind telling our readers about your background? How did you get started in design?

I was a history student in a French university in he mid 1990’s. One day, I noticed Photoshop installed on a university computer. I started to play with it, and I quickly realized that I could design Techno/House music flyers with it.
flyers

Wow! I was amazed. At that time I was thinking of becoming a DJ … I was involved in the Electronic Music movement, and my bedroom walls were filled with flyers. Photoshop liberated my creativity and hooked me: I was spending days learning and experimenting. I thought I should make a job from this passion.

Originally I wanted to be a print designer but when the Internet started to boom in 1999 and I was hired by a french startup, I was bitten by the Internet bug and spent a lot of time in and around open source, Linux and web communities.

From the beginning, I was surrounded by developers. My environment is more application development than design. I’ve never worked in a design agency, or closely with other designers. My ultimate goal is not the design, but create a useful application, see it work and grow, and have users enjoying it.

Tell us about some of the influences on your work?

I appreciate work from a lot of designers, and I’m amazed every day when I check Dribbble, but ultimately my inspiration comes from people who mix design, coding, and business.

The most influential were 37signals, and the agile development methodology inspired my design method. I was involved in Ruby on Rails projects since 2007, and the first 37signals book “Getting Real” had a huge impact on me.

I feel an affinity for the German/Swiss approach to design: form follows function. I see myself as being more like a German engineer than a NYC designer.

I see a sort of legacy from the Bauhaus movement to Apple. Apple was heavily influenced by the Braun design philosophy (50’s – 70’s era … not this bullshit “Transformer Robot” design they are doing now since they were bought by Gillette). And Braun was directly influenced by the Bauhaus.

What I love about Apple and Braun products is the perfect balance between great engineering, timeless design, and product-focused advertising. It’s a comprehensive approach, but, at the same time, every detail counts.

Let’s be honest … all of this minimal design we see everywhere these days: is directly inspired by what Apple has been doing for long time, isn’t it? We would all love to be hired by Apple, right?

The Apple design style has influenced a whole designer generation … for the better! Imagine if we were influenced by Microsoft.

When did your love of icons first emerge?

It wasn’t love, but needs.

As an interface designer, I needed icons for my daily work, and back in 2009 the only vector icons pack I’ve found was the Konigi wireframe icons. It was a great pack, but it got only 180 icons and I needed more.

So I started to create my own collection, Minicons, which I released for free in 2010 as part of the GUI Design Framework.

The feedback was so amazing that I decided to extend the collection to 750 icons in 2011, then 1500 icons in 2012.

business icons

In addition to your design background, do you also have any technical training, whether it be formal training or self-trained?

Only self-trained. I’ve learned everything from books, online tutorials and mistakes. I’ve learned a lot about Illustrator with the great Vectips website by Ryan Putnam.

vectips-screenshot

You have channeled your passion for design into a suite of tools geared towards other designers. What was the catalyst behind these projects?

Customers care more about having their design ready on time than they do about pixel perfection. So don’t waste your time reinventing the wheel.

Productivity! “Real artists ship” said Steve Jobs. If you want to be a successful designer you have to be productive, and deliver fast. Customers care more about having their design ready on time than they do about pixel perfection. So don’t waste your time reinventing the wheel. Especially now that we are in a “agile design” era. We iterate quickly the design. The perfect mockup we struggle to design will probably be deeply transformed. So we should use resources that speed up our work process. So we should use resources that speed up your work process.

If you are a lucky designer who has a lot of time and resources to design, you can create everything from scratch. You don’t need eternal resources. But for most designers, the reality is tight schedules, and just a few days or weeks to work on each project.

That’s why I made these icons, GUI elements, and vector ornaments easy-to-use. These resources can be used by designers to quickly start their projects. They can still improve them, or change them later when the customer approves the first draft.

Quickly finding the best resources to help design and manage your projects and business is also the goal of Agile designers.

Was productivity the goal from the beginning with your design products, or did things grow organically in that direction?

Productivity is deeply rooted in me. And I want other designers to benefit from it.

I was successful as a freelancer because I’ve always delivered on time, and could turn a project around quickly. I could charge a good price, around $700 to $800 per day, because customers knew it will be delivered on time, and not compromising their development schedule.

When you spend more time than you quote, you damage your profitability, and you disrupt your schedule.

When I quoted 10 days of work, I would spend exactly 10 days on it. When you spend more time than you quote, you damage your profitability, and you disrupt your schedule. The next jobs on your schedule will be delayed.

Using a time tracker application, like “Billings” changed my life. It helped me to become more productive and to keep within the planned time limit for each task.

Can you give us an overview of each of your web tools?

How appropriate! I’ve made a list of all my favorite tools using Agile Designers. Check more than 40 resources I’m using here: http://www.agiledesigners.com/toolboxes/1270

Agiledesigners.com looks particularly promising. How has the reception of the site been so far? What plans do you have for future growth?

Agile Designers had a great reception when I launched it, thanks to Smashing Magazine. More than 3,000 designers joined so far. We have close to 1,000 resources, and we get regular resource submissions.

agile3

But I’m still not satisfied. I’m working on a complete redesign at the moment, mostly to give more focus to the new functions we have added such as Toolboxes, community resources moderation, and resources submission.

With the current design, visitors and users don’t see the tools because too much stuff and features are packed in the header. The new design will be simpler, slicker, and you will have a sidebar always visible with all the main features

Overall, we’ll be closer to an application than a classic website, and I believe users will get more benefit from this new version.

Do you still have any time to do design work, or are you focused exclusively on the web projects right now?

I design only for my own projects, and to help close friends on their projects. But I’m no more accepting freelance projects.

Do you miss it?

I don’t miss it at all.

I was frustrated with the freelance work. For example, I would work for two weeks on a design, deliver it, then six months after I look at it. It had become a hideous monster.

I was frustrated with the freelance work. For example, I would work for two weeks on a design, deliver it, then six months later it had become a hideous monster. Or I realized that the design I’ve made wasn’t very good, but I can’t improve it: there was no more design budget. Or the customer has other priorities.

To have my own projects allows me to refine the design over the long term, listen to the feedback and improve it round by round. Maybe good design is only possible with an in-house designer or a customer rich enough to pay a designer on a long term contract.

It’s an exciting time to work in the web industry. We are in the middle of a big transition period, given the diversity of new devices by which users can access a website and new technologies such as HTML5, CSS3, CSS pre-processors, SVG, and so forth.

Do you have a sense based on your interactions with other web professionals which approach, webfonts or SVG, is likely to win out over the next few years?

The future is hard to predict, but we are entering a vector era for sure. Thank god! No more tedious icons exported in PNG from Photoshop.

Webfonts are the best choice at the moment, because they allow you to easily play with the styling using CSS: adding shadows or changing color, for instance, is a snap. And they are grouped in one file, which is better for your website performance.

SVG is not as easy to use yet, and not as optimized for performance (it requires different files or to inject them in a CSS file). But I bet this will change in the coming months or years.

svg

Webfonts are a better choice for now, but if SVG becomes the new way of integrating icons, we will provide SVG export for icons. Actually, inside the Fontastic interface, all icons are already in SVG. This is the easiest way to manipulate them (we’ll add icons edition soon). Exporting them would be easy, but we need a way to group them in one file and give easy access to them from the HTML/CSS code.

Let’s finish out by talking about your icon set, Minicons. I have read a comment you made online that your goal is to created the largest, most consistent set of icons available. Is that still your goal? And how do you think that is going?

Minicons already is the largest and most consistent collection available. I see Minicons as the “Helvetica for icons”: they are simple, almost monotonous. They don’t have a particular artistic flavor or a strong personality. That’s why they can be used in a lot of situations. I’ve bought a lot of other icon libraries, but most often I’m back to Minicons. They always adapt to the design, and I can find all the icons I need, working consistently together.

minicons

I plan to add more icons later this year, but I have to finish Fontastic and Agile Designers first.

You said you have created 1,500 icons for Minicons. Can you venture a guess as to how many hours have gone into creating the icons?

One icon can take 10 minutes to 1 hour to create. Sometimes it’s very quick, as you create variations from the same basic shape, like pages icons with different actions (e.g., add, delete, edit, etc.).

I’ve realized one thing though: when the collection becomes very large, with hundreds of icons, the creative process slows down, as you have to organize it, modify some icons to keep it consistent, and so forth.

You struggle with more elements to manipulate, and export in various formats like PNG. It becomes a tedious and long process. The bigger it is, the slower it is, and it feels like you’re drowning sometimes.

So how do new icons get added to the set?

I try to think about typical uses needed for a designer. What do you need in an application? on a website?

I create categories, like “multimedia”, and try to think about which icons are required. Also, I look at other icons libraries, like Font Awesome, or I keep an eye on directories like “The Noun project” to make sure I didn’t miss anything.

multimedia

At the moment, I’m collecting inspiration for the next Minicons upgrade, but it won’t be ready for several months.

What is the source or sources of inspiration for new icons?

I collect inspiration when browsing on the web, or in the physical world, like in the shopping mall or an airport. I will take a screenshot or a photo, then add it to my inspiration library.

I also get inspired by classic icons collections, like AIGA symbol signs, the Olympic games icons, and German transportation icons. I was using 2 great books as inspiration when i was designing the Minicons:

Handbook of Pictorial Symbols – thousands of icons, some from the 1930’s:

handbook

Pictograms, Icons, and Signs - A fantastic review of thousands of classic icons, along with historical presentation, tips to use … highly recommended for any icon lover:

pictograms

Do you do the initial sketches on paper and how many variations will you do on a single theme before deciding on a single design for an icon?

I rarely draw sketches before creating icons in Illustrator. The main reason: with a 16px grid, there is such a size constraint, and so little details possible that it’s a waste of time.

Usually I start with basic shapes like rectangles or circles, paths with 1px – 2px stroke. Then I use the Pathfinder tool to combine, divide, intersect, and finalize the icon. It’s more like a Lego game than Illustrator work.

The rare occasions I’ve drawn icons on paper was for the people icons, as you can see on the scan above.

sketch
Given that creating “the most consistent set available” is one of your stated goals, I imagine the use of a grid is important. How strictly do you adhere to the grid?

It is important. Minicons were planned to be used mainly for buttons, compact menus, lists elements, and stay legible as small sizes. I stick very closely to the grid, to avoid any blur effect when they are rasterized in PNG or even rendered in browsers.

Should we expect to see it continue to grow? When do you anticipate the next update to the set?

I want to add more icons, to reach 2000 or 2500 icons, and keep it the biggest collection. I will probably create a page where users can request more icons and describe what they want. I saw a competitor doing it with Google Docs (I don’t remember who): it’s a great idea to listen to your customers.

Maybe I will use the Sacha Greif “Telescope” application for gathering requests and allow people to vote on them.

For the next updates, I plan to create variations in bigger sizes, as the current trend is to use huge icons, more as an illustration. So I will have to redraw all these icons with more details, probably in 24px, 32px and 64px variations.
Actually, if you are a freelance icon designer looking for a huge job, please contact me.

You are clearly very ambitious. What can we expect to see next from you?

Well, I should probably go meditate in a Thai Buddhist monastery for a few days instead of being involved in more projects. I work too much as it is – around 50 to 60 hours/week, so I think it’s time to slow down. I want to consolidate all the projects I have and market them more efficiently.

If I had time, I would love to write an e-book for web designers about – guess what – being productive and generating more money.

You will maybe find me more focused on generating money than talking about art and design theory, but my ultimate goal is to create freedom by generating enough passive income. But I won’t sell my soul, and I strive to create great products at an affordable price.

Quick Q&A
Location right now?

North of Thailand, in the city of Chiang Mai. I’m living here for 5 years with my fantastic wife!

What’s in your headphones?

Daft Punk, Fela Kuti, Classic music from the New York Philarmonic, Notorious B.I.G

What are you reading?

The Great Gasby. Just discovered this incredible masterpiece!

Favorite new app on your smartphone?

Not new, but my favorite: “Civilization Revolution” strategic game

Coffee or energy drinks to keep you going?

Filter coffee. Cappuccino iced. Coffee Shake. Too much coffee.

Place you most want to visit?

Japan, and I would love to visit again Italy (maybe work from there for a few months)

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  1. Wow ! That’s a great interview ! Well done Vince :-) ! It’s very interesting to know more about you, your background and your ambition. Bravo mon ami ! ;-)

  2. Living the icon design dream from Thailand, that’s amazing! I know from experience that it’s getting difficult to come up with new useful and unique icons after you hit 2000+, I’ll tell you all about it sometime. :)

  3. It’s great to find icon finder and the interview is very inspiring and motivating for all the freelancers who work with us.

    I agree with you about freelance work. When I look at some of the web design work I’ve did 6 months, I think damm I could have done better.

    But that’s how it is, time passes and we improve with our skills.

  4. I thoroughly enjoyed my conversations with Vincent. His motivation and very deliberate thinking about how he approaches his work were/are inspiring. I hope you all will join Agile Designers and follow his work closely. I expect to see his work have a big impact in the coming months and years. I also think that designers can learn a lot from him. We tend to be more about creative expression and neglect the business side. We need to incorporate his ideas into how we approach our work.

  5. Just when I started focusing on generating passive income from icons design, I realized I need more in-depth knowledge about the business side of things, not only the creative. Vincent explains this very concise. Excellent interview!

  6. I am not at all a designer but I love it so much that I learned web designing on my own using internet and Google. I am by profession a digital marketer and optimizer. Recently I started my startup and needed one designer. I contacted few and when I looked at their designs my view was not that positive. Then I started working on it and somehow managed to create it on my own.
    You know, these type of inspiring articles should be written more for people like us who love to see beautiful things on the web and I am truly amazed with this interview and many things noted which need to be explored for more knowledge.

    Thanks for sharing this article and educating all of us.