In our ongoing series of interviews we are happy to introduce you to full-time icon designer Ion (pronounced “Yon”) Popa. Ion, better known in icon design circles as Popcic, is from Chișinău, Moldova. We caught up with Ion via Skype to chat about life, Chișinău, and icon design.
Scott: Tell me a little bit about Chișinău. What do you like to do for fun in addition to designing icons?
Ion: Usually, I like to go out with my friends for a beer or to have a barbeque together. Lately, after putting the children to bed, me and my wife, go to town for a coffee so we can relax. When you have two kids running around all day and messing around, you need some time to get your brain together. It’s real fun to spend time with them, but you get a headache after a day spent with them.
Scott: Getting into the icon work, are you a general graphic designer or do you just do icon design?
Ion: I only do icon design. I started first with simple icons, then I went into 3D icons, and then again into simple ones (glyph style). But the icon design ‑‑ this is what I like.
Scott: What is your favorite icon or set of icons that you’ve designed?
Ion: I can’t identify one single icon or a set of icons. It often happens that I design an icon and I just love it, but this is only until the next great one appears.
Anyway, there are some icons that I think are good. That’s the wheelchair – it was hard to design such a well-known icon, to make it my style and still recognizable. Another one is the Panzer (tank) . I like the perspective of that one. Also I like the flight icon and elliptical trainer icon.
Scott: Is there an icon or set of icons by another designer that you’ve seen that you think, “Damn, I really wish I had designed that”?
Ion: [laughs] This happens almost every day. I find icons that I really think, “Why didn’t I think of that?” When this happens, I’ll browse the Internet to find more information about that topic and then try to design them in my way.
Scott: How long have you been designing icons?
Ion: It all started in 2009. I was quitting my job as a sales agent and trying to find a new job. When a good friend of mine, Andrei Ureche who owns pixotico.com, suggested I become a freelancer and create and sell art for stock photo sites. I have always liked to draw. I used to play with photos in Photoshop, make collages from family photos, but I was doing that as a hobby. I could not believe that I can earn money from this. So, I started to learn Adobe Illustrator in a couple of months. I realize that this is what I love and this is what I want to do.
Scott: What is your favourite project that you’ve worked on in 2014?
Ion: I guess that is the line icon series. By this time, most icon designers have designed their own collection of iOS-style icons. I wanted to do a series of line icons, but different than the typical iOS style. I came up with this style that consists of lines of the same thickness, but look smaller and different, to make it a bit personal.
Scott: When you tell friends or someone that you meet that your job is designing icons, what kind of reaction do you get?
Ion: Most of them are really surprised to hear that. Some of them don’t even understand what icon design is and who would pay money for these kind of things. Actually, six years ago, I would probably think the same thing. My parents and some other relatives still don’t understand what it is I do. For most of people, I know this is something strange.
Scott: Do you have any design idols or designers whose work has influenced your work? Who are some folks who’ve influenced your work and your approach to doing design?
Ion: Not really, because the icon industry is still very young. There are a few designers like Paul Rand - he’s a good logo designer. I like some from designers that do icon designs on stocks like Tom Nulens and Scott Dunlap. I really like their work.
Scott: Where do your ideas for new icon sets come from? How do you decide what your next set is going to be?
Ion: Ideas come from everywhere. I love to travel. Who doesn’t? Every time I go on a holiday, I come home with some new ideas. Sometimes it happens that I walk with my family and see, for example, a farm machine and I think, “OK, this is going to be my next icon this year”. This is going to be the theme for my next set. Or I can watch a movie and find some ideas from there.
“I just want to draw what my soul tells me to draw.”
Scott: When you’re planning a new set, are you thinking about what the sales potential for that set, the market demand, and where it’s going to fit? Or are you just designing stuff that interests you?
Ion: There are times when I just want to draw what my soul tells me to draw, or what I like, but most of the time, I would think what people will want in terms of icons. Often, I discovered that there are some topics that people are willing to buy or to have, but the market is already full with these icons so it’s better to find a niche and then make icons in this niche.
Scott: Once you’ve identified a set that you want to design, how do you proceed with the work? Do you do sketches on paper, or do you just do everything on the computer?
Ion: I would usually browse the Internet and find everything about the topic, go to specialized sites that are selling or producing, or offering those kinds of products or services, and find out what kind of symbols or imagery they use to describe their products or services.
Then I write down a list of icons that I think best describes this industry and start drawing them. Usually, I don’t do it on a paper. Most of the time, my icon starts from basic shapes, like a rectangle or circles, or lines. When there are some icons that I want to draw, but I don’t know how best to draw it, then I would use paper and pen to make some sketches.
It may be that from one topic, I can make a set or maybe two, maybe more.
Scott: When you’re designing a set of icons, what steps do you take to ensure that all of the icons have a consistent look and feel?
Ion: That’s a good question. Before, I used to put every single icon I have designed in a set and post it. Now, when I finish an icon, I have to go back and see how it looks with the other ones in the set. Very often, I will finish a set of icons and then exclude or redesign or even delete three or four icons from that set because they just don’t fit, or leave them for another set.
Scott: Are you using some kind of a grid or underlying form when you’re designing your icons?
Ion: Yes, I did my own grid for icons, which is based on the golden ratio. I made this square with these lines, so when designing the icon, I just try to stick to those lines. If, for some reason, the working process or sticking to the grid may harm the icon, then I just ignore it, but sometimes, it really helps.
Scott: How do you develop your own unique style, but also maintain a high level of recognizability of the individual icons?
Ion: It’s not a secret that when you start to do something new, at first you look at stuff you like. It takes time and practice until you get to have your own style. This is what happened to me.
In the beginning of my icon design career, I was looking for simple icons on the Internet. I tried to design something similar. Then I started to do through looking at the icons, which were selling great on stock sites. But I realized that what I love best about icons is simplicity and designing simple icons and simple is what I really like. You need to develop your own style and stick to it. Now I try to remove any unnecessary details in the drawing and just leave what is most important.
Scott: Are you working on any interesting projects right now that you can talk about?
Ion: I just finished work on a set of snowflakes. A couple of things that I like to have in my work are symmetry and simplicity, so this was a fun set to design.
Scott: Ion, it has been great talking to you. Good luck with your icon business. Thanks again for your time. I hope you have a great day.
Ion: Thanks to you, Scott. It was real fun.
Current Location: Chisinau, Moldova.
Coffee, tea, or energy drink: I love coffee.
Favorite Book: “Losing My Virginity” by Richard Branson. It’s a biography.
Favorite Movie: “Beautiful Mind,” “Spygame,” “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”
Favorite brand of sneakers: Adidas.
What’s in your headphones: Moby, Adele, Sade, Dire Straits.
Favorite Dire Straits song: “Sultans of Swing.”
Mobile app you can’t live without: Pocket