Tom Nulens aka SodaFish is one of the worlds leading icon designers. His work is used both online on web sites and apps, but also offline in important public places like airports. Recently We had a talk with Tom about the process of designing, focusing on being good at one thing and of course icons.
Good icon design crosses cultural borders. It speaks a global language.
Scott: I really appreciate you taking time to let me interview you for the Iconfinder blog. I’ve been an admirer of your work for a number of years, so it’s really a pleasure to get to talk to you about your work. Let’s jump right in.
Scott: What influenced you to go into design?
Tom: I don’t know if there was just one thing that got me into design. It was more of a process. I was very fascinated by photography before I started studying graphic design. I got a camera from my father when I was a kid. I was very fascinated by advertising, like commercials on television, and how the ads were designed.
Scott: Did you draw as a kid?
Tom: Yes, yes, of course. When I was maybe only 10 years or so I used to paint logos, trademarks, things like the Coco-Cola logo for example. I tried to imitate the logos and styles with my pencil then with paint. That was something I really liked to do.
Scott: You always knew you wanted to study advertising and design at University?
Tom: Yes. It was a very clear decision but I wasn’t totally clear on the specific direction. I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to study design or animation. I was really fascinated by all aspects of animation, especially the large Disney movies and animation shorts. But in the end I decided to study design.
Scott: Is it safe to say that you’ve always had a love of imagery?
Tom: Yes, definitely. That’s a good word for it. I think imagery has a global appeal and it expresses best. But I also have a passion for architecture and global forms.
Scott: When did you discover your passion for icon design?
Tom: I designed a lot of logos and as a result I started to get fascinated by simplicity and by minimalism. I really loved the way you do a lot of research, a lot of sketching and tryouts to have, in the end, a very simple form, a reduced form, and that was something that I liked about logo design.
I also used to design typefaces, when I was a student. In typeface design you need to make sure that all of the characters have consistency in style. I think an icon, especially when you need to design a set of icons, is the perfect combination of the simplicity of logo design and the consistency of typeface design.
Scott: What makes a great icon design in your view?
Tom: I think an icon is a combination of things. I have a few things I find very important to verify the quality of my work.
It is first of all the reduction, how much can you reduce something after you analyze the object or the idea? You have to think about, “What is the most recognizable part in that situation and how can I translate that in picture form?”
Secondly, it has to be recognizable. You have to recognize the icon without the need for text or copy around it. Good icon design crosses cultural borders. They can speak a global language.
Scott: How did you decide to go from working in design and advertising agencies to working for yourself?
Tom: I worked for some really large advertising agencies in Brussels. The problem there was that nothing was ever fast enough or good enough. The workload was always extreme because you’re in a big agency, making a lot of money, working for big clients. The demands were not sustainable long-term.
Of course you get a lot of experience in these agencies. I think I can recommend that to every young designer starting out go to a big agency because the experience is fundamental for your career.
But there came a point when I thought, “OK, this is just not what I want to do for the very long term. I want to be able to balance my work with my family and my life. There are more important things than just work and stress”.
I decided to experiment with designing my own work, my icons. I went from full-time to part-time at the agency where I worked. The gradual step into working for myself allowed me some of the securities of employment but also freed up time for me to experiment with my own designs and starting to work locally.
…when you really, really fine-tune the icons, in this case, it sells better, much better.
In my products, I can give all the energy I want, for all the quality I want. If it takes longer, it takes longer, no problem.It’s very rewarding in the end. Because when you really, really fine-tune the icons, in this case, it sells better, much better.
Scott: Was leaving your agency job and going to work for yourself a difficult decision to come make?
Tom: I think the advantage I had is that I was relatively young when I did so I didn’t have as many responsibilities. I was a bit more of a rebel perhaps. I thought, “Fuck it all! Let’s just try it. The job was not what I wanted to do. I wanted to do something else.”
Working for yourself has some consequences, and some difficulties. I think the most important thing is to stay focused. I discovered that more than once. You have to give yourself some sort of boundaries, some sort of limitation, “OK, this is what I do and nothing else”. It’s easy to start making everything that you think is going to sell but it turns out very bad in the end because you don’t have a focus, you don’t have any sort of specialization.
Scott: What is your typical work day like now?
Tom: For me, a typical day does not really exist. I’m not very structured, not very disciplined. I often work in periods. What I mean by that is when I get inspired, when inspiration is really flowing, I can work very, very long days or very long weeks, even nights.
If I have a creative or mental block, I just simply don’t work. I go out. I do other things because there’s no use sitting behind my desk just doing nothing. That’s one of the reasons I love being a freelancer. I think when you’re not using the flexibility you get from the freedom you’re missing the point. You might as well keep working from nine to five.
In general, I think I work a lot harder than before, but it doesn’t feel that way. It doesn’t feel like I’m working hard because it’s a passion. It’s my own product. It’s my own money, and it’s much more flexible.
I do always have a sketch book with me, and my mobile phone. When I’m going out or when I’m with friends or going out somewhere, and I have an idea or I see things that inspire me, I sketch it out or take a photograph. I write notes.
I keep an OmniOutliner document, and it’s a priority list for me, about the next concept I want to develop. It’s more like Facebook, with notes, with screenshots, with photos I’ve taken or sketches. I order them based on commercial value. I don’t want to make anything that has no commercial value. It has to sell. I don’t want to make art that does not sell. I want to make products with a commercial value.
Scott: How do you go about researching and identifying what is commercially appealing as a product?
Tom: Well, this is something I find very important. I follow a lot of feeds on Pinterest and Twitter. I read Computer Arts every month just to stay informed because I think that’s very important to see the influences of design more broadly.
What will be commercially successful is a very difficult thing to answer.
It’s not like a singer or a songwriter knows in advance what is going to be a hit. It’s more of an intuition that’s more informed by the years of using the work as a designer with the agencies. I think you get a much better feel for what will be successful from being a designer yourself.
Scott: What is your approach to the conceptual idea married with the context and circumstance of the design?
Tom: I always start with a thought. With a circumstance, an environment that I think icons will be suitable in. It can be objects, it can be actions, concepts, feelings. Will the icons abstract? Will they be reduced, or will they be more illustrative?
It all depends on where they will be used. Sometimes, especially when they need to be displayed very small, they will be more abstract more refined, just essential parts will remain. Often, like the example of an annual report, it can be more illustrative.
I will identify these factors before starting with the icons individually, I decide on a global style so they all fit in the same grid, to have consistency. From there, the sketching begins.
I then create the metaphors, some associations. It depends on the context, of course. People need to understand the icon. Once I’ve been through the discovery process
I start designing the individual icons.
I then move onto sketching, form sketches. I used to do that on paper. I do that now using the Wacom Cintiq. That still isn’t perfect, because it still isn’t very portable. I like to go out with my sketches. I’m waiting for some ultimate device from Wacom that they make some sort of tablet like an iPad, but uses Wacom technology in it so I can do my sketching anywhere.
Getting back to the sketches – I analyze the object to integrate the reduction into the sketch. I have to see if the form fits the global style. Then I go to illustrator to do the vector designs. I often make some sort of design grid. It’s not pixel perfect, not that kind of grid.
A design kit, for me, are building blocks like line widths, specific corners, specific angles, or radiuses and things like that, that are part of the global style.
Everything she (my daughter) recognizes is fine, because everyone will recognize it. She is my final test.
For example, every pen point may be rounded or straight. The building blocks can be different in every series. Using two different line widths, that’s an important element of the style grid. In illustrator, I build the series. That part is very easy.
My user testing is very uncomplicated. My daughter, who is six years old, simply looks at the icons. Everything she recognizes is fine, because everyone will recognize it. She is my final test.
Scott: Who were some of the designers that inspired you, or still inspire you?
Tom: I was never really influenced by just one person or just one element, but more by visual styles and technologies, more by trends. When I was a student it was Neville Brody and David Carson.
Flat design and minimalism are things that really inspire me, I think it’s a great evolution. One illustrator I admire a lot is Noma Bar. He uses negative space and a very minimalistic style. He’s really great. His illustrations all have some sort of double meaning.
I think it’s important to keep moving and to stay informed, to stay on topic, and to evolve with the rest of the industry. I think that influences are important. I build my own designs on a bunch of influences but I try to do my own thing with it. Unconsciously you draw from your influences but make new things with them.
One more person who really, really influenced me in icon design particularly, and that is Stefan Dziallas from Iconwerk.
We worked together on a Cisco project. He’s from Germany, so that’s not so far from here. He is really the greatest icon designer, in my opinion, the way he designs and simplifies icons with great vision. He made me realize how much possibility icons and pictograms have.
Scott: I really appreciate you taking the time to talk to me, and our readers today. I wish you continued success with your icon work. Our readers and I really look forward to seeing the work you come out with next.
Tom: I must thank you, Scott, because I think it’s nice to have a conversation like this. I want to thank you for that.
Scott: You’re certainly welcome.
About Tom Nulens
Location: Alken, Belgium
Favourite music: Muse, Alicia Keys, Hooverphonic, Birdy, and a Belgian group called “School is Cool”.
Currently reading: I read a lot of comics – Hagar the Terrible, and Calvin & Hobbes.
What fuels you when you’re working? Tea in the morning, Coke during the day, and beer in the evening.
Favourite movie: Inception and Kill Bill
Icons on iStock: http://www.istockphoto.com/user_view.php?id=704336