in Icon design

Interview with P.J. Onori – part 2

A few weeks ago we brought you a blog post with design technologist, P. J. Onori. This week we bring you Part 2 of the conversation.

In this interview we talk to Californian P. J. Onori about his design background, philosophy and how he’s shaking things up in the Icon world with his new KickStarter campaign, Iconic.

Scott: When did your interest in design begin?

P.J.: I was a computer science major at the University of San Francisco. Unfortunately the computer science department at USF was very math centric. In fact, I think the two deans were math majors.

I just wanted to make things that people could use.

I was always interested in the interface aspects and they were interested in the algorithms behind all the things that people would see.
It became abundantly clear to me that programming was not where I wanted to head. I wanted to create things that people could use and design at that point was the closest, best fit that I could find.
Scott: Did you take any design courses or any human-computer interaction classes in university?

Yeah. I actually switched to be a design major. Unfortunately, the design program was very print-focused and very traditional in terms of this design, which was good. It was a good background but I ended up having that same reaction of, “Eh, this isn’t what I’m really interested in. I’m not interested in designing books”.
And so, once I graduated, I ended up merging those two things.

Scott: So you switched majors and studied graphic design instead. What was your first design job out of college?

It was like a nuclear bomb went off in the Bay Area.

P.J.: Funny enough my first job was a development job. It was post-dotcom bust, and I couldn’t find a design job. There was just nothing. It was like a nuclear bomb went off in the Bay Area. I found a job that they said was design, but it wasn’t. It was basically development. That was fine because I was able to pay rent and put food on the table.

That kind of pigeonholed me for a long time, and luckily I was able to get a job at a company called Adaptive Path.

Scott: If you weren’t a designer, what would your other career choice be?

P.J.: Oh, man. That’s a good question. I’d love to be a photographer. I’d probably be dead broke given the current state of photography, but I’d love to be a journalistic photographer.

Scott: Would you say that you have a guiding design philosophy?

P.J.: I think it’s a constantly evolving one. I wouldn’t say that this is the overarching philosophy, but for me it’s very important to make experiences and design things that respect the intelligence of the individual and help push them forward, help them grow as individuals.

Scott: How did the original, open source, Iconic set come about?

P.J.: It’s kind of a funny story. I made the very poor decision when I launched my new website to say “OK, everything I do on this site is going to be open source”. Which sounds great, but it was amazingly difficult to do. I’d promised everyone that everything I did on my blog would be open source, so I’ll just open source these icons. To my surprise, it took off and took on a life of its own. That’s where it grew from.

Scott: Iconic is designed on an 8 pixel by 8 pixel grid. Why did you go with an 8-by8 grid?

P.J.: Because I was going to use them at a small size. Legibility was really important to me. That’s often something that’s brushed aside for icon design. I think legibility is one of the most important things we can do as icon designers. Ultimately people need to be able to see them and understand them.

Scott: What are some areas that you think are lagging behind in the design world and need more attention?

P.J.: I think the thing that’s lagged behind the most is designing for performance. I think with broadband we started to, to a certain extent, get lazy. Designing for speed over experience. I think that is finally starting to become front-of-mind for a lot of designers.

We need to try to make something beautiful and clear, but we also need to scale it down into something that’s fast and performs, and can be delivered quickly to the viewer.

Scott: Webfonts and SVG + JS. What is your take on the current situation?

Icon display on the web is a constant game of plusses and minuses. For webfonts, there are some considerable plusses. You have one request. You do have Unicode equivalents. There’s tremendous browser support, which is really nice. But you do run into limitations. It’s just a flat character. There’s nothing you can do with it.

Up to this point, and I say this with some hesitation because it’s hard to know everything that’s happening on the Internet, we have not seen icons be treated semantically. You get an SVG. You can export it right out of Illustrator. There you go. You’re done. Treat it as one big compound path, and away you go.

Scott: What is your approach at Iconic?

What we’re trying to do is really treat our icons as semantic entities, where each element is named appropriately and is separated so that you do have flexibility and control over every little facet of the icon. What that gives us the opportunity to do, as we’ve shown, is create dynamic icons with simple JavaScript and CSS. You can control elements and be data-driven.

Also, you can style them with CSS and get really fine-grained. “I want this piece of the icon to be grey. I want this other piece to be blue and have a stroke width of two”. Those are normally the things that you do in Illustrator before you export the icon.

Now, this approach is allowing us to deliver icons, where people can say, “These icons are great, but I need them to look a little differently for my needs”, and it’s completely doable. We’re hoping that this is a big step forward.

Thanks to P. J. Onori for giving us his time and sharing his thoughts with us.

For more information on the Icon Project you can visit:
PJ’s Kickstarter campaign

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