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Simply Iconic

Posted on November 12, 2011 and read 2,601 times

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This article was originally featured on, IHAVEANIDEA’s partner in all things related to stock imagery.

The world is a complicated place. Every day we’re all expected to navigate, learn and perform more and more detailed tasks just to keep up. Think about all the things you’ve been asked to do today: turn on the power, subscribe to the latest news, download the attachment, click for more information. You’ll have to form a line, order here, then recycle your empty bottle. Just making a phone call now requires some fairly complex navigation and choices. And yet we all manage to understand and follow these detailed instructions, whether we speak English, Russian or Urdu.

Most of the time, you don’t get these instructions in words. Icons, ideograms and pictograms do the job of representing the tasks and steps required of us to get through our busy days. A simple picture tells you how to send a message, and if it’s created well enough, you will understand and begin using it without needing any text. Icons tell us the difference between arrivals and departures at the airport and men and women at the restroom.

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A good icon must be clear and simple. Designing something that is both is difficult and time consuming. Clarity and simplicity are artforms that must be mastered. The simplest pictogram requires a vast understanding of how people understand symbols and metaphors. An icon designer must be a skilled illustrator and a deft communicator.

iStock’s Illustrators have been doing an admirable job supplying graphic designers around the world with icons they need to help people understand what needs understanding. We asked two of the best we have to share a few thoughts on the challenges of pictorial communication.

Tom Nulens (sodafish) and Scott Dunlap (scottdunlap) are two of our most talented and successful icon designers here at iStock. You’ve probably seen and clicked on their work without even realizing it. They’ve both mastered the complex and demanding art of making things simple enough that anyone, anywhere, can understand.

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How did you get interested in designing icons and ideograms?

scottdunlap: I was designing a brochure and couldn’t find what I needed, so I created it myself. I was drawn to the challenge of distilling an idea down to a single, simple glyph. At the time I was already contributing photos to iStock, so I applied to become an illustrator and an obsession was born.

sodafish: It’s the combination of interest and commercial opportunity. Since studying graphic design I started to get passionate about simplicity and minimalism. After graduating, the demand for icon designs by clients went in crescendo, driven by the birth of digital media and devices. This encouraged me to focus more on this discipline. Having the possibility to combine my initial design interest with commercial opportunities was an evident decision. Seeing how some of my designs became quite successful here on stock only confirmed this was the right direction for me.

What other kind of design and illustration experience do you draw on when you create an icon?

sodafish: I use a combination of skills in the process. After the search for a suitable metaphor, I start analyzing the real-world object to translate it into a reduced 2D visualization. This process of creative abstraction might be the most important. For me, a simple sketchbook works quite well for that. From there on I blindly rely on my background on general design principles, to give a balanced and modern styling to the icon. Composing form and color in a correct way will not only make an icon more appealing but can accentuate elements that improve the overall readability. For me, following past and present design trends are essential, it will be reflected into my designs and can give it a more unique or contemporary feeling. I was always taught it will be hard to make something new when you’re not aware of what is old.

scottdunlap: Where to start? My design background has a huge influence on my iconography. I usually design by subtraction, removing unnecessary items until I’m left with what’s truly important. I am definitely a minimalist at heart. There’s too much distraction in our lives’, and especially on our computers and mobile devices. So designing clear, simple icons comes naturally to me.

Then there are universal elements of design that I draw upon: color theory, the rule of thirds, symmetry, accessibility, and so on. Basic things like proper kerning and leading of type teach you about whitespace and flow and consistency. Probably the most important trait is that designers are problem-solvers. Designing simple icons is anything but simple!

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What kind of information is an icon best suited to communicating?

scottdunlap: I’m not sure there is an easy answer. Icons can represent actions, objects, or ideas, and they can represent either simple or complex concepts. That said, there are definitely challenging subjects to convey using icons. These usually end up with an arbitrary icon where the relationship has to be learned. Think of the symbols for male and female, radioactivity, or the command key on mac keyboards. There is very little that is intrinsic in these icons.

sodafish: Pictograms are used more than ever and play an important role in today’s communication design. When there is not enough space for clarifying words or when it has to be understood in multiple languages and cultures, an icon can be a perfect solution. It’s a universal language. In more complex circumstances it can also be faster to read an icon than it is to read written type. In some places we simply expect a visual form of communication. It’s hard to imagine an airport or a public restroom without the informing pictograms, they have simply proved their usefulness.

What is the most challenging aspect of designing something that delivers a clear, recognizable message?

sodafish: The process of reduction. Translating an object or situation into a stylish, minimal form. All elements that don’t contribute to the clarification of the icon are superfluous. They will only have a negative impact on the readability of the symbol. Creating something simple and clear can be quite hard, and that’s exactly what makes it so challenging to me.

scottdunlap: I can never know the end user—they could be a grandmother in Japan or a toddler in the U.S.—so I need to make my work as universal as possible. But I also have to make sure they don’t become too generic, or they risk becoming vague. Designing stock icons can be even more difficult, because it is impossible to know how they will be used. It could be for a website, application, printed piece, presentation, a way-finding project, or multiple other scenarios.

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What do you need to keep in mind in order to make a single icon communicate across cultural and language barriers?

scottdunlap: Use metaphors that are universal and constantly question your assumptions. Realize we all experience cultural bias to some extent.

sodafish: I think it’s important to use a global metaphor, which is recognizable by the largest group. And the use of a more generic styling will also have a positive impact. It might be less sexy or fashionable, but it will benefit the readability over different cultures. The process of reduction remains essential. Minimal form can have maximal impact.

Describe your dream project. If you could have your pick of clients to create a set of icons for, who and what would it be?

sodafish: The 2016 Olympic games sport pictograms. It’s a major event, seen worldwide. And the elements will need to be part of the overall visual identity. That would really be something worth working on and a big creative challenge.

scottdunlap: This will come as no surprise: Apple. I started using their products when I was 13 years old and have been hooked ever since. Their attention to detail is unmatched, and it’s surprising they haven’t slipped as they’ve become so large. Right now I am working on an iPhone app, and I’d love to work on the interface for one of their bundled apps, as well as the app icon. Being on the home screen of every iPhone and iPad would be gratifying and a little bit surreal.

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Image Credits

Color Elements | Set 03, Color Elements | Set 02 and Public restroom icons by sodafish

Social Media Icons | Circle Series, Multimedia Icons | Circle Series, Office + Interface icons / cobalt series and Finance Icons | Letterpress Series by scottdunlap




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