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Designing Icons

Today’s challenge: Design a family.

Family members aren’t carbon copies of one another. Each individual does their own thing, sports their own look. At the same time, though, they’re related. We should be able to look at them and know that. Got it? Create a set of individuals who are distinctly different AND visually connected.

Impossible? Maybe, but the task isn’t conceptually far off from what icon designers tackle every time they create a new icon set.

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“As a designer, I find the most difficult part of creating a series of icons is … the ability to maintain a holistic view of the overall set to create one harmonious package.” So says California-based icon designer Zach Roszczewski, who specializes in building icon suites that complement an existing brand or help establish a new one.

His iconographer peers agree. “Most icons are created as a set. The most important challenge of that is creating them to be distinct enough from each other, yet clear that they belong together, stylistically” says Anne Ulku, whose freelance work covers the design spectrum, from icons to illustration to lettering, branding, even art exhibitions.

If a designer prioritizes the individual over the group, says Anne, the set suffers. “Often times I’ll come across some really amazing icon design with a not-so-great brand design — or at least they just don’t fit together stylistically. Vice-versa as well — a great brand, with some icons that just don’t fit in with the style. The icons should branch off of the brand and be a consistent look.”

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Adding another degree or ten of difficulty, each icon must represent an entire abstract concept so successfully that a user almost immediately grasps the meaning. Vermont-based iconographer (and illustrator and designer and actor and parent and co-founder) Jory Raphael explains.

“Icons are all about distillation, by definition ‘the extraction of the essential meaning or most important aspects of something.’ The challenge of extracting the essential meaning from a concept, or object, and representing that visually, at a small scale, without extraneous details, is the main challenge.”

Fortunately, per Jory, the big challenges of creating small icons typically lead to huge satisfaction. “Each icon is a small project. And the ability to complete a bunch of small projects, while working towards the larger goal of a whole icon set, is highly satisfying.”

In the next three installments, we’ll hear more particulars from Anne, Jory and Zach. They’ll highlight specific icons they’ve created, telling us how they arrived at the finished sets.

Design For … is an occasional series taking a closer look at a design niche. Want more? Check out Design in Motion: Part I and Part II, and Design in a Book: Part I and Part II. If you work in a design niche you’d like to see us highlight, email stories@dribbble.com.

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