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in Icon design

Interview with Scott Lewis

We mentioned the new Iconfinder interviews in a previous blog post. Our goal is to take you behind the scenes, into the minds of some of the designers you know and love and quiz these guys and girls about what makes them tick.

We’re going to bring you interesting insights (and the occasional trivial fact) about how the designers view creativity, work processes, trends, equipment and what the view looks like from their window (what their desk looks like).
mr-lewis

First up is Scott Lewis of Iconify, based in Richmond, Virginia US. Scott has been designing since the mid nineties and got into icon design seriously after being confined to his bed after a serious operation on his neck. Scott’s a passionate designer who has experienced many changes in the industry, developments in technology and the personal balance of doing what he loves and making a living.

Hey Scott, let’s start at the beginning. How did you get into designing Icons?

It was actually my competitive, perfectionist nature that got me interested in icons. In my first year of a graphic design course in college, we had an assignment to represent three common objects using only 3 line weights, in black-and-white. I’m a little bit older (43 years old) so this was just before computers were widely used in graphic design, around 1992.

I chose to do graphic representations of brass instruments like a trumpet, French horn, and trombone. They were really bad and I got a low grade. I was so frustrated with myself that I became determined to master the skill.

I’m a software/web developer but I design icons as a hobby. I started out doing print design but when the world wide web started to take off, I transitioned from print to web design. I was never happy as a designer though because I didn’t like having to account for clients’ preferences. I just wanted to create stuff.

I did, however, love designing my own logos and icons. Icons are perfect for me because I can do whatever I want. It’s a huge bonus that people seem to actually like my designs but that was never a primary concern for me.

workspace

When did you started getting serious about icons?

Getting serious about icons was kind of by accident. In December of 2010 I had to have 3 vertebrae in my neck fused. I was laid in my recliner in a stiff neck brace for 6 weeks without much to do except read, watch movies, and waste time online. Noah Scalin of Skull-a-day.com challenged me to do something creative with my time.

He started a project where folks commit to creating something every day for one year. I was too afraid to commit to doing an icon-a-day. I didn’t  fully complete the challenge but I ended up creating over 500 icons that year. Noah’s a nice guy and has been a great encouragement to me and countless others.

How long do you usually spend on an icon?

Sometimes I can work out exactly what an icon should look like in my head.

It varies quite a bit. Sometimes I can work out exactly what an icon should look like in my head. In those cases, it takes me about 1-2 hours. Some icons are more complex or I might have trouble working out the metaphor, or I might try multiple variations of the same icon. It can take several hours to get those exactly the way I want them. I’m also not averse to going back and changing things if I figure out a better way to do something.
compass-progress

There are also icons that are variations on the same theme. For instance, I might have a News icon that I then combine with several different actions such as Edit, Delete, Next, Previous, etc. Once you’ve built up a sizable collection you can also combine and reuse parts of icons to create new ideas, new metaphors.  I refer to these reusable parts as radicals. I think I got that term from linguistics, but I’m not sure.

Tell us about your oldest icon?

The oldest icon in my collection is the light bulb icon. I did the first revision of that one in about 1993 while I was still in college. It has a pretty interesting history.

light-bulb-evolution

Back around 2000 I updated the icon to use for what was going to be my logo design business then called Catalyst Logo Design. The business never happened as I was getting offered too much programming work to turn down but I did have business cards printed and put a portfolio of my work online.

Would you consider going full-time?

Ah, that’s a really tough call. The difficulty I had as a designer was that I didn’t feel intellectually challenged. What I love about programming, is the mental challenge. By the same token, I could never  imagine not designing icons. I like using both sides of my brain. The thing I really hate is having any kind of fixed schedule.

I can literally get hyper-focused and work on icons for 16-18 hours in a day.

I can literally get hyper-focused and work on icons for 16-18 hours in a day. But I like to having the flexibility to choose from one minute, hour, or day to the next what I focus on. I work for a big corporation, though, so that kind of aversion to scheduling isn’t really compatible with the corporate world.

What are the tools of the trade you could not do without?

I use the Creative Cloud version of the Adobe Creative Suite. It’s the greatest thing Adobe has ever done. US $29.99 per month instead of nearly US $2,000 every few years. I love it.

The only tools I need now to do my icon work are a sketch book (grid sketch pad), a ball point pen, my iPhone, and my MacBook Pro.

sketchbook

What are the biggest changes you have noticed in your industry over the last 5 years?

I think the two main areas are access and understanding. Icons have become more ubiquitous and popularity has been driven by the ascent of mobile. This in turn leads, in my opinion, to designers seeking out information, researching and understanding more about the iconic designers. I am interested in the works of Gerd Arntz and Otto Neurath in particular. While I don’t agree with their political points of view there is no denying their footprint on our industry.

One of my favorite works of Arntz is the motorcycle. The overall creation is beautiful but when you look at the curves, and the relationships of the lines and shapes to one another, I’m just really blown away by it.

gerd-arntz-motorcycle

Personally, I’m only interested in creating black and white symbols, but 3D icons are very much the same. It’s kind of like the difference between doing woodcuts or etching versus oil painting. The artists working with different tools, but you’re still dealing with the same issues of light, shadow, perspective, positive and negative space, and so on. And the metaphors are still the same.

How do you think Technology is influencing design?

The incorporation of icons into design and the new types of formats are really exciting. It looks like we’re moving away from some of the awkward limitations we got from CSS Sprites and PNG’s. Web fonts and SVG stacking are the ones I’m most interested in. There are still some limitations to do with implementation and browser support but it’s moving in a very exciting direction.

On the other hand, we have SVG stacking, which is a very interesting approach. There is still some work to do on this approach and I’m not sure where the browser support for it stands. The reality is that at the moment we’re still heavily dependent on JavaScript with regards to an SVG approach. If we can get to the point where we can use SVG and CSS exclusively, then I think we’ll be getting somewhere promising.

If we can get to the point where we can use SVG and CSS exclusively, then I think we’ll be getting somewhere promising.

The downside of using SVG, in my opinion, though, is the amount of bloat inherent to XML-based markup. The actual vector coordinates comprise a small percentage of the actual bite data. So you have a lot of structured markup wrapped around the actual part of the data that you need.

We are in really good shape in terms of web page optimization for desktop browsers, but mobile devices are more limited. The last thing we want to do is add more data to be transmitted in order to render a page.

We can embed the SVG in the page itself but that creates a caching problem because if your icons are embedded in the page, when you go to the next page they aren’t cached and ready for use. Ironically, it may be the case that CSS sprites are still the most efficient approach.

But it’s still exciting to see the problem get addressed. We’ll figure it out, but it’s going to require that developers keep exploring and hopefully the browser makers will cooperate and build in support for whatever approach wins out.

How do you keep up to date with the latest trends and developments in design?

The only publication I read regularly is Smashing Magazine. I spend a lot of time on The Noun Project site as well. I like to follow the designer spotlight and check out the latest additions to the site. And, of course, with the new features added to Iconfinder it will be a great tool for keeping track of designers whose work I admire. Other than that, I use Dribbble and Behance quite a bit.

I’m really surprised that Pinterest hasn’t taken hold among icon designers and fans. It’s a great site and makes creating virtual scrapbooks really easy.

What tools can’t you live without?

I use Evernote to keep lists of icons, sets, and/or designers that I want to remember also. I use it mainly to keep track of icon sets to add to my gallery site, Iconify.info.

Ironically, Evernote is the only company to ever contact me and ask me to remove their logo from my social media icon set.

Ironically, Evernote is the only company to ever contact me and ask me to remove their logo from my social media icon set. They were really nice about it but explained that it wasn’t consistent with their branding guidelines and asked that it be removed. I was disappointed, but I’m really sensitive to copyright and intellectual property concerns so I was happy to oblige. I definitely don’t want to step on anyone’s toes.

Do you think it hurts their brand to ask designers to remove their icon?

No, I don’t think it hurts. I think companies like Google and Facebook recognize the value of having their icons out there, saturating the market. Both companies have guidelines for usage, but they seem to be pretty lenient in actually going after people who don’t follow them to the letter. In the end, I think ubiquity is more important than anything else.

Of course it’s a problem if they update their branding. E.g. the twitter bird?

Yes, but that’s really a good problem to have – you have saturated the web so much that it takes time to replace an old symbol. I would prefer that to total brand control but low saturation.

Based on our sales so far people are willing to pay $2 for really good icons.

Yes. Based on several months of consistent sales, it’s clear that a lot of people are willing to pay $2 per icon. But I think the key is the quality. The icons have to be high quality design.

What do you think about pricing and licenses for icon designers?

I think websites like The Noun Project and IconFinder need to work hard to maintain a high quality standard. The worst thing that could happen is that there is no quality control and the prices go down.

The Noun Project and IconFinder have showed that a high quality service is achievable. I think a consistent licence agreement across the board would make it simpler for designers such as myself and help to not confuse the customers buying our products.

Right now I sell my work across a range of platforms including my own site but the idea of products such as IconFinder and The Noun Project handling distribution and sales is an attractive one. I could then spend more time focussing on design and talking to customers.

Whose work inspires you?

He has it down to a science. He nails it every time.

In terms of contemporary designers, my favorite is DutchIcon. I visit his site regularly just to admire his skills. I’m especially enamored with his faces. They are really hard to represent in an iconic way but he has it down to a science. He nails it every time.

I also love the work of Paul Rand. In fact, his Westinghouse logo was the single biggest influence on my thinking about design. The design looks kind of like a face and that was intentional. He based the design on a tribal mask. I was hooked on logo/icon design and it opened my eyes to looking outside of the design world for inspiration as a designer.

paul-rand-logo

How do you balance a full icon set?

This is something I’ve only recently started thinking about. For a long time I didn’t think of the icons as a whole set, mainly because I was just creating them for fun. But after reading an article by John Hicks about designing icons, I decided to start unifying my icons visually.

I now put them on a 15 pixel by 15 pixel grid and make sure the line weights and curves are consistent. The science set available on IconFinder was the first set to get this treatment. I’m using a 15×15 grid now, but have debated whether to use a 16×16 grid. This blog post by John Hicks gives some great tips on setup

What will you be designing in 10 years time?

I have, for some time, considered the possibility of moving icons off of the computer monitor and onto some larger, physical surface like screen printed posters, woodcuts, or even paintings.

I have no idea. I can’t really answer that but I can tell you what areas really interest me. I have, for some time, considered the possibility of moving icons off of the computer monitor and onto some larger, physical surface like screen printed posters, woodcuts, or even paintings.

Some quick questions to end with:
  • Location right now?

    Richmond, Virginia, on the east coast of the United States.

  • Worst job ever?

    Working in a garment warehouse filling shipping orders one summer in college.

  • What’s in your headphones?

    The Glitch Mob, Late Night Alumni, and Hans Zimmerman’s Gladiator soundtrack. I will be listening to electronic music in my 90s

  • What are you reading?

    Neuromancer by William Gibson.

  • Favorite new app on your smartphone?

    Kind of lame, but my banking app. It’s super convenient.

  • Coffee or energy drinks to keep you going?

    Really h5, French Press coffee or a Latté with 4 shots of espresso.

  • Favorite pair of trainers?

    Brooks Addiction.


Scott will be talking to fellow designer Hemmo De Jonge from the renowned Dutch Icons. We’re really looking forward to it and will get the interview here on the Iconfinder Blog soon.

We thank Scott for taking the time to answer our questions. Leave a comment below and let us know what you think.

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  1. Great interview! One of the things I love about Lifehacker.com’s “I am _____ and This is How I Work” is when the guest mentions his top apps and favorite productivity items. Glad to see the same elements in this interview. I absolutely LOVE learning about what apps/software top designers use.