Starting as an icon designer can be challenging. Icon design requires so many capabilities ranging from technical and illustration skills to abilities to brand yourself and reach out to the potential customers. This leaves some of the beginners confused and insecure about the work they do.
Luckily, there are dedicated professionals out there, who still remember the days when they were starting off – no tutorials to learn from, and all these shameful first icon design attempts they are hiding now from the public’s eye. Some of these guys, like Kyle Adams here, want to help today’s beginner icon designers feel confident about their work, so they dedicate a significant part of their time creating a material that brings a lot of clarity into the process of icon design.
Scroll down to read Kyle Adams’ story: his thoughts on beginner’s struggles and icon design future, his unexpected experience in designing an icon of kalimba, and his recently released Icon Designer’s Handbook.
Hi Kyle, it’s great to have a chance to speak with you. First, tell us what do you love about living in San Antonio?
Well it’s very close to Austin, Texas, which is kind of a big hub for things like UI design and technology. I love going to Austin, so living in San Antonio means we can go and visit there, but I like that San Antonio is very family-friendly, it’s laid back, it’s not as fast-paced as Austin would be, but it’s still a larger city where we can get to things.
For how many years have you been designing icons and what do you love most about it?
It’s been probably about 5 years that I’ve actually been practicing designing icons. As far as full-time work, it’s been about a year and a half, or so.
There is just something that’s really really awesome about these tiny concise images that guide people. The reason I like UI design in the beginning, is that there is this connection between what you design, and people actually using it, and experiencing it. It’s not just there to look nice or to just be visual, it’s also usable.
Icons are sort of the middle ground between design and illustration – there is a lot of technical aspect to them, which I love, but there is also this creativity and visual impact that icons have, and on top of that, they are usable.
So what I really love about making them is that they have all these different facets, but they work together to make something that is nice-looking, usable and technically-created.
Where do you find your daily inspiration for icon design?
I am on Dribbble a lot. There is a growing number of icon designers going over the Instagram and it’s really been great to see that. But, you know, last year even, beginning of the year, I remember looking at Instagram and there were a lot of those people doing illustrations and calling them icons, but there weren’t a lot of ‘let’s make icons’ enthusiasts out there.
So most of the work I follow is on Dribbble and, as odd as this may sound, I also get a lot of inspiration from apps. Sometimes I go and download new apps and just look at their icons and try to see what they are doing, what’s actually being put out there. That’s because on Dribbble, though people make really awesome icons, you don’t really get to experience to use them and it’s really nice to actually do that and see what it’s like.
One big inspiration, as far as icons go for me, has always been Evernote. They always make these really nice-looking icons and sometimes I just open their app and play with the icons.
What was the most unexpected or extraordinary icon design project you’ve had?
As far as unexpected I think it was working on an icon for Sean McCabe. He was about to start taking time off every seventh week, small-scale sabbatical as he calls them, and he wanted to have an icon that symbolized he was away. At that time it was mostly for his blog posts – he wanted to signify that this is the time that he’s away.
Sean had this instrument called a kalimba, I wasn’t familiar with it at the time either, I think it’s an African instrument. Anyway, he’d gotten into playing that and it was really soothing and relaxing and he was playing that when he was on his sabbatical time-off, reflecting and thinking about things. So we chose that for the icon he use.
It was really unexpected and it was really fun, it was different than a lot of things I’ve done. It was one of those icons that are more of symbolizing something, rather than being something you specifically click on and do something with, but that was an awesome project to me. I have a full case study about it on my site.
Do you have your favorite icon or icon set that you have designed?
Yes, it is my bike icon. It was very in-the-moment icon, I’ve made it more for myself and when I posted it, it said I’m looking for a bike, which I was at the time, but I also was really struggling with making some mistakes and it had all those meanings to it, but I just didn’t want to share it. Later, I came along and wrote a blog post about it. That’s actually one of the ones I’m turning into a print later on this year. So that will be exciting.
You’ve recently published The Icon Designer’s Handbook. How did you come up with such initiative?
When I started making icons about five years ago, there were a few resources, but it was really hard to come across a concise way to understand icons and start making them.
Most of the way I’ve learnt in the beginning was from Apple’s own icons. I would pull the source files and look at how they had made their icons – put them in Photoshop, zoom in, and look at the pixels and see how they generated things. I would also download some free resources on Dribbble and just see how they set up their files.
It was a learning process and it was self-taught, but it was very very slow. It took a few years to actually and really understand a lot of things.
Because of that, I really want to teach about icons, I want people to have those resources and be able to get things off the ground faster than I was able to. I’ve been sharing weekly blog posts for over a year, just about icons. There were some introductory things in there, there were some more advanced things that I’ve blogged about, and over time I kept getting questions from people about how do I do this or how do I do that.
Some of these questions might be about something I’ve posted about, but they’re not aware of that, they wouldn’t gone that far back or maybe they just didn’t even know I did blog posts. So the Icon Designer’s Handbook was this let’s bring this all in, and be very concise with it and just teach people how to get started, essentially.
Could you briefly tell us what can a reader expect to find in the Handbook?
The Handbook goes through a few sections and the first one is ‘What are icons?’. It really explains what an icon is and what you should expect when making an icon.
The second one talks about single icons. It could be an app icon or it could be one icon out of the set, but it’s really just talking about how you can formulate icons and come up with the ideas for them and make them actually work to achieve goals, which icons need to do. That’s sort of the idea of that section.
Then there’s ‘Icon Sets’, so there is some information about how to make icon sets, how to make them cohesive – that’s a big big struggle that I’ve seen. So that whole section is just dedicated to making icon sets and showing how they are formed and made cohesive.
And then the last section is actually some recipes to help get you get started with the few basic icons. They are very simple icons, but the goal there was to get people’s minds into creating something pixel-precise and using some basic shapes to start creating things. It’s sort of moving away from just grab a pencil and start making some dots somewhere, it’s a little bit more calculated.
My goal with the whole Handbook was to not focus on any specific software or platform, because really that doesn’t matter. In two years, maybe, we’re not all using Illustrator or maybe right now someone is using Illustrator, and someone is using Photoshop, and someone is using Sketch. So the Handbook is very agnostic to any particular software platform and I just want people to focus on how to make good quality icons.
In the Handbook you present a process of designing a single icon. What do you think is the toughest part of the process and how can one approach it to be most effective at that stage?
Let me get through a scenario. Let’s say you’ve talked to the client, you understand the goals they need to achieve as a company, you understand why they need these icons, what they want these icons to do.
Now that you have an understanding of that, you’ve got to take all these things, I mean we are talking beyond just we need this icon to open our app to we have this app that locates bakeries and tells people where they can go to reserve bakeries for an event, for example. So you’ve got that goal and on top of that you have these brand goals, such as ‘we appeal to this audience’, ‘we would like for the app to convey a sense of fun and excitement’, ‘in two years we want to expand to offering these things as well’… I mean, there are all these things and that’s the hardest part – distilling that down.
In the Handbook I go through much more of this in detail, but the best thing to do is just to take all of those goals and start pulling out these keywords – what are they really trying to achieve. Clients can’t really do that for you, that’s something you’ve got to really do yourself. In the Handbook, it kind of takes all of these big goals and boils them down to maybe even a single phrase. If you can get into a single phrase, that’s fantastic.
Normally, what I do is I take keywords and I start drawing icons for those keywords, even if they are very cliché, basic icons. I just sketch everything that could possibly symbolize that word in my mind and I go through each word that I have or each phrase.
And then, at the end of that process, I have these different icons to work with and I can start putting those together, maybe even understanding what’s most important for the icon. For instance, maybe the fact, that you can hire the bakery to cater an event for you, isn’t the most important part, maybe the most important part is that you can locate them, and once they’re in the app they will find out they can reserve those. So you can basically throw that out and really focus on specific things.
You’ve just mentioned that when designing icon set, a big challenge is to be cohesive. What would be your short recipe for overcoming this challenge?
I kind of go over the simple grid to use for this in the Handbook. But the big thing for cohesive icons is to make sure that at least two sides of the icons you’re working on touch the edges. And also, overall, try to have them in similar widths and heights, because they are family, as the way you can think of them, and families generally look similar. They may not all look exactly the same, but they look very similar.
So, generally, cohesiveness is reached by sticking with that rule and also considering things such as how much rounding are you giving, corners and color – making sure all those are consistent.
How can one get an access to your Icon Designer’s Handbook?
You can go to learnicondesign.com, and when you sign up there, you are subscribing to the lists. I have a newsletter lists and I have been publishing a blog post weekly. So you’ll get that every week and on top of that you’ll get the download for the Icon Designer’s Handbook. It’s free – I want people to learn and grow from it.
It may be hard to start as an icon designer. What is your best advice for all beginner icon designers out there?
As simplistic as it sounds, just start making things. Your first icons aren’t going to look great, it’s just inevitable. My first icons look pretty terrible. So just get that out of the way and practice everyday. Try to keep yourself from worrying so much about the logistics and everything, like I need to get clients or whatever it is… I mean, if you’re really really excited about icons, then preserve that excitement.
Don’t worry about how trendy you are or how up-to-date you are with things, just learn. I learnt with the old skeuomorphic Mac icons and things have kind of changed from there over the years, but it all came from just being curious and experimenting and not losing that curiosity.
I think often it’s really easy to get bogged down by saying yes to too many things, because you are excited about what you’re doing. I actually wrote a blog post awhile back called ‘Why I declined four client requests in one day’.
It’s great to want to help people and it’s great to want to take on clients and practice your skill that way, but there is also a lot of benefit in practicing for yourself and being okay with that; being okay with people not necessarily patting you on the back for the things you’re doing, but doing everything because you really love to do it.
For people that are starting, that’s the biggest piece of advice I can give – just keep doing that and keep learning from it and if you want to be an icon designer, then share icons.
I see a lot of people saying I want to be an icon designer and I want to do that full time, how do I do that. And then, in their profile or their portfolio, is icons, and then there is some UI design and then there is some illustration… It’s like all these things piled on top of each other. And people aren’t going to realize that you really want to make icons, if that’s not what you’re projecting. So it’s the curate-what-you’re-sharing type of thing. Just make icons, project those, be okay with them being terrible at the beginning.
What do you think is awaiting the icon design industry in 2016?
I love this question. Technology has gone through some major shifts in recent years and, in the late 90s and early 2000s, software and websites were really focused on abilities or features – it wasn’t so much about great experience, as it was provoking the response ‘look what I can do!’, right? So we’ve grown towards an ever-growing focus on user interface and more recently, user experience.
The features eventually added so much complexity that people started to seek beauty and simplicity within interfaces and, because of that shift, I really believe that the need for quality icon design will grow significantly this year.
Saturation of apps and websites using templates have brought about the need for really unique and engaging experiences. As the key visual communication in most interfaces, icons are at the forefront of solving that need.
That’s really where I think everything is headed in 2016 – this importance on experience. And icons, in my mind, are much more more part of the user experience than they are of user interface, even though that might sound a little silly, considering they are built-in into interface, but icons really exist to give some form of experience. It’s giving a break from all of the text and all of the noise and it’s allowing you to see something visual and really create your own ideas from that.
I think the big growth in 2016 will be that brands really want to have separate experience, they really want to focus on their goals and they want to stand out from the crowd. Instead of using the same thing that twenty other companies are using, they want to have a specific experience for their brand and communicate goals. And that helps them stand appart. I think 2016 and 2017 are gonna be huge for that.
Icons have always been this thing of interest, but I think they are starting to become a thing of need and necessity.
Especially, when you’re talking about mobile apps. And having a really really good affordance and leading people on the right direction and, as I’ve mentioned in the beginning, creating trust with the audience you’re targeting, is huge for companies.
Coffee, tea, or energy drink: Coffee. Pretty much all of mornings start with Chemex coffee.
Favorite Book: ‘People Over Profit’ by Dale Partridge.
Favorite Movie: I’m a big Star Wars fan!
Favorite brand of sneakers: That’s a tough question. Vans are the ones I wear the most, though.
What’s in your headphones: Lately, I’ve been listening to a lot of PVRIS.
Mobile app you can’t live without: I think it would be OmniFocus – it’s really fun to actually tap the checklist, especially for the big tasks.