gizmostyle

in Icon design

Interview with Dutch Icon

If you follow icon design at all, you are, no doubt, familiar with the designs of Hemmo de Jonge, also known as Dutch Icon. He is one of the top designers in this niche field of ours. In this week’s interview, I am talking to Hemmo about his background, his design philosophy, and how he goes about creating his unique style of icons.

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To start off, tell me a little bit about your design background. How did you get started in design and how did you progress to specialising in icons?

polaroid2I started 15 years ago at an ad agency with clients like Unilever and Philips. After that I worked at a real estate communications firm where I became an identity designer. In the mean time I attended the Art Academy in Rotterdam.

It was a young and competitive environment. Most of the time my logos were selected as the logo that was going to be used for the project.

So I thought, “maybe I’m a corporate- or brand identity designer”. I did that for about 10 years. In 2004 I started my own design company in addition to my regular job and had a couple of clients I worked for.

Then in 2009 I was fed up with my job with that firm. I thought I could do it better by myself, so I went for total independence.

That summer was slow so I created 12 icon sets and uploaded them to iStockphoto.

So, IStockphoto was the first place you sold your work, what year was that?

The summer of 2009. I was a full-time independent designer for a couple of months with lots of clients. The problem was I was making  little money and there was a lot of hassle. Work slowed down in the summer and I decided to switching to icons full time.  I put some icons on iStockphoto and by September I had made $40! (laughs)

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Nice. It feels good when you get those first few sales, doesn’t it?

Yeah, it was the best month of my life. It was really cool. [laughs]

When did you start getting serious about icons? When and how did you decide to pursue icon design as a full-time career?

In March 2010 I already earned more through iStockphoto than with my regular clients. But I couldn’t abandon the people who I have been working for since 2004 just yet. In the fall of 2010 I decided to pursue full time icon design and had to fire my clients.

How did they take that?

They were disappointed and actually could not understand it. They never actually heard it before, that a designer fired his clients. I have a pretty big network of people who I have been working with. There were quite a few graphic designers who I put forward to take over the clients. The client was happy. I was happy. And then my friends, the designers, were happy.

What is the ratio between stock icon sales and custom icon work that you do?

I would say about 50/50. It’s really cool to work for big clients like Toyota and TomTom, but in my heart I think I should create more stock icons because I can really put my own vision in the style. I’m the boss of that style and I can do whatever I think is right. Working for clients that want to put their stamp on it, they want to get involved. That’s not always good for the style.

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How do you keep up with what the market wants? Do you just have an intuitive sense of what people want?

I think, for the most part, it’s intuitive. I also speak to range of creative people and ask them, “What would you need? Why do you think my work is good or not good?”? They, I suppose, give me an honest answer. I can do whatever I want with that critique of course. I also do a lot of research online and reading books.

For your custom icon work, do you do all of your own self-promotion, or do you use a representative of some kind? How much of your work week do you spend on self-promotion versus creating icons? Do you enjoy the promotions side of your business?

I don’t spend much (or any) time on self-promotion for custom work. I have my website of course and then I let my work do the talking. This way I get quite a few custom design requests a week.

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Tell me about your design process. How does a new icon set get started, and then what is your workflow like?

The process for stock icon design is a bit different from a custom icon design. The custom icon design is more projectbased. You make some sketches by hand, then you show it to your client, perhaps make some more sketches. After approval on the sketches, the vectors will be created.

The process for stock is way more fun. The whole research thing, it’s way bigger. You need to know what’s out there. It’s much more complicated and interesting.

So you use a blend of feedback, experience, intuition and common sense?

It all starts with an idea. Like I had for Gizmo: I was hanging around the coffee machine looking at unclear terribly designed icons. I made some sketches how it would look better. Then the idea is planted. I take pictures of examples I encounter in my daily routine, like from the fridge, washing machine etc.

I look at other similar styles that are already out there and just try to make it better and more useful and sketching away and come up with new characteristics. When the idea is fully grown in my head I start vectorizing. I make like a couple of hundred icons and change things a lot until I’m satisfied with the results. The amount of time I spend on each icon depends on the type of style and how familiar I am with that style. Let’s say one or two hours per icon. But I also made 80 icons in 3 days one time.

How long do you spend on each individual icon, and also how long does a set of 15 take you? Do you design in discrete sets? Or do you break them up into sets after you’ve done a large number of icons?

It depends. Designing custom icons, I charge per icon, so including all of the production and sketching, I work max two hours on each icon. When it’s not done within two hours, I don’t have any profit. When I design a total new style like Gizmo, it almost took me a month to get an extensive set of all the samestyled icons. I spent a lot of time in the beginning, and after a while. I just need an hour, maybe an hour and half per icon.

gizmostyleI used to work in sets, especially for iStockphoto I made sets of 15, and I thought, “What kind of set? Maybe tropical icons. Now, what is tropical”? Then I would come up with like 20 ideas for tropical icons, then choose the best 15, and just make them. The time it took, on average, was a day and a half per set.

That’s about an hour per icon. But the style was already there. It was the raw style, so I’m familiar with the style, so I can start right away, designing an icon.

What tools do you use to create your icons?

I use Wacom Cintiq for hand sketching, which saves me about 30% of time. You can work way faster than sketching on paper. You need to erase, redraw, erase, etc. You need to scan it in, then in Photoshop you need to adjust some things. With the Cintiq, you can do it all at the same time. It saves a lot of time. That’s my favorite tool. After that, I go to Illustrator to vectorize in Pixel Perfect as well.

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What do you when inspiration strikes?

Sometimes people think I’m crazy, but I don’t care.

I take pictures all the time of things I see, or if I’m talking to a friend of mine or something, and all of a sudden I see a cool icon. Then I’m taking pictures of the door, and my friend thinks, “What is he doing? Just taking pictures of the door. What do you care”? [laughs] Sometimes people think I’m crazy, but I don’t care.

What do you think about Adobe’s change to the Creative Cloud subscription licensing?

I’m happy about it. I have already been using it a while. I’m all good with it. I use Lightroom, as well, for the library of my icons. You can download Photoshop, whatever you want. If you think of something new, “Wow, I should use Fireworks for a bit”, you can try it. I think it’s good.

Do you use an underlying grid for your icons, or are the ratios between line weights just intuitive for you?

It starts out intuitive, but when you make like 1000 icons in one style, you cannot trust your intuition all the time, so the rules are coming out. Then you’re going to measure, how wide is it, actually? Then most of the time it’s around 18 points or something like that. Then I start to make the grid. That was the raw style, a very intuitive style, but with Pika and Gizmo, I had a grid in mind. Pika is 32 pixel, and Gizmo is 64.

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How strictly do you stick to the grid?

One time I made 50 icons on a very simple grid in one day. But what’s easy can be done by anybody. I try to make it less easy, so then it’s more unique.

I don’t. I’m not that strict. I see styles that are exactly on the grid, and I’ve done that also a couple of times. It’s very easy. One time I made 50 icons on a very simple grid in one day. But what’s easy can be done by anybody. I try to make it less easy, so then it’s more unique.

Do you find working to a grid limiting to your creativity?

Yes, but the easy part about it is when you make an intuitive style, like raw, there is no grid, so every design decision you have to make takes some time. There are no options. I already made those rules, so I don’t have to think about it. It takes less time.

But you think the creativity suffers from that lack of decision making on the fly?

It does, but it’s also a challenge to not let that happen. I try my best to make as much of creativity in that 32pixel grid. So again, it does, but it’s also fun to do.

Do you have a design philosophy? What is “The philosophy of icon design, according to Dutch Icon”?

I do have a very clear philosophy. I always think with everything I do, it must be simple, quality, and fun. When it’s not all three of them, it’s not good enough. That could be my slogan as well, actually. I hate unnecessary details. It’s noise you don’t need. Simple, quality, and fun are in my DNA I think.

I do have a very clear philosophy. I always think with everything I do, it must be simple, quality, and fun. When it’s not all three of them, it’s not good enough. That could be my slogan as well, actually. I hate unnecessary details. It’s noise you don’t need. Simple, quality, and fun are in my DNA I think.

What are you influences in terms of design history and trends?

Gert Dumbar, Paul Rand had a big influence on my early work. Also Dick Bruna, the creator of Nijntje (a.k.a Miffy). In icon design perhaps Gerd Arntz, who did amazing work.

Interesting. Paul Rand was probably the biggest influence on my work, as well as Gerd Arntz.

Gert Dumbar was the same time period, I think, for me. It was the same sort of style very open and clear. It’s like how I do my design right now. You can see a logo of Gert Dumbar on every train in the Netherlands. It’s recognizable from a distance.
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Was there a particular moment in your life when your design philosophy ‘clicked’ and your style became clear?

Kind of, but I don’t think it was a certain click. It was more of … it was a child books’ illustrator. Ever since I was a little child, my mother was reading from the Nijntje books. I just loved those, so in my mind, I think I always was drawn to simple form and shapes, making things simple. I wasn’t that good at making things complicated, in terms of designing. So I don’t think there’s one moment I felt well, I should be a simple icon designer or anything.

I just saw examples, of the people I already mentioned. I felt at home with their work.

Do you follow any of your design contemporaries? Who are some icon designers whose work you admire?

hlveticonsMeet2A nice thing happened to me yesterday. You probably are familiar with Helveticons?

Yes, yes I am.

Maximilian Larson, he’s a Swedish designer, approached me a week ago and he said, “Well, I’m in Amsterdam for a week. I know you’re near there, so perhaps we could meet”. I thought that it would take me at least half a day, and I was very busy. But I never get a chance to meet other icon designers in person, so I went to Amsterdam, and we talked for three or four hours just about icon design. It was a lot of fun.

That’s really cool. I want to press you this a little bit…maybe not on the competitors. I used the wrong word. I actually meant “contemporaries,” other designers. Can you name some designers whose work you admire?

Most of the time it’s all young guys. Tim Boelaars, he’s a Dutch guy as well. He’s well-known on Dribbble. He makes icons in a different style, and he puts them on silk screen posters and he sells his stuff that way. It’s really cool. I like the work of Sodafish as well. He is a competitor of mine, but I know him a bit so I guess that’s fine. I like Pippo Lionni and Stang (from the Netherlands as well), and Max Kisman as well.

Image 2013.05.28 17-22-06
Airport signage by Sodafish

One of the big debates going on right now is about the best way to display icons on the Web in particular. Are you following the developments in this area?

Of course. I have some icon fonts as well at symbolset.com.

What is your opinion on the SVG / Webfont approach and how do you think it shapes the future?

It’s important to be aware of all the technology that is out there. But I want to focus on the icon design. That’s the most important thing to me. I think when pixel sizes get larger like on Retina displays the relevance of pixel perfection cease to exist and then vector and icon fonts will get more popular. But the technical stuff I can leave up to someone else.

What have been some of the challenges that you’ve faced with building your business?

To make a difference in this icon design business, you need to be the best you can be. I had someone working for me, and he said:” you’re always so strict. You’re always tough to please.” I said: “well, I like to push you a bit further, because I think it can be better.”

The most difficult thing I encountered is convincing people I work with that good enough just isn’t good enough! To make a difference in this icon design business, you need to be the best you can be. I had someone working for me, and he said:” you’re always so strict. You’re always tough to please.” I said: “well, I like to push you a bit further, because I think it can be better. If I do it myself, it will be better, so I like to push you the same way”. When I get the feeling someone isn’t pushing himself hard enough, I will do it for him. Not everybody can handle that in a positive way.

Do you have any aspirations outside of doing icon design for the traditional media?

Icon design is very much a B-to-B kind of business. It would be great if my work would reach a different level, more conceptual, less ‘useful’, maybe fashion, books or art. Perhaps more B-to-C even. Designing icons or pictograms for the Olympics one day … wow that would be really amazing.

That’s all the questions I have. It’s been a pleasure talking to you. I hope it was enjoyable for you as well?

It was fun. It was cool to talk about icon design.

Quick Q&A
Location right now?

At home in Rhoon, near Rotterdam

Worst job ever?

As an employee I couldn’t think of any in particular, every job has it’s highs and lows.

What’s in your headphones?

Rammstein, Deftones, Beastie Boys, Foo Fighters, Lana del Rey

What are you reading?

Finest 50 about the 50 best e-commerce cases by Jungle Minds

Favorite new app on your smartphone?

Blue Weather app by Oak studios

Coffee or energy drinks to keep you going?

Tea all day long

Favorite movie?

Social Network, Bourne identity

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  1. Thanks, Tim. The interview was a lot of fun to do. I love the subject matter and Hemmo was a great interviewee. He really cares about what he’s doing and is a nice guy. Not to mention incredibly talented.

  2. Great write up! I can really identify with you and the journey of your career path. Felt like only yesterday I was so excited you had noticed my dexter icons. I’d be curious of how you look/view your older work…. I’m always very critical of it and usually more honest.

    Well great article thanks, Andy

  3. Love the interview! That’s exactly how Hemmo is. We’re are lucky to hire him for our own corporate custom icons. The icons are timeless. Finally we animate his icons and bring them to life

  4. Andy & Hans, thanks for the great feedback. I’m glad you like the interview. It was a lot of fun to do. Like both of you I’m a big fan of Hemmo’s work so I thoroughly enjoyed talking to him. Something I hope to have the chance to do again soon.

    Thanks for reading the article, and I hope you will follow what we’re doing here regularly. Martin has some great stuff lined up and I have several really cool interviews lined up over the next 2 months. I think you will enjoy the upcoming interviews every bit as much. We are really trying to personalize the interviews and tailor them to the individual designers rather than just ask the same questions or the obvious questions.

    Thanks again.
    Scott (on behalf of the Iconfinder team)