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5 Traits of a Successful Icon Designer

Read Time: 6 mins

What makes a successful icon designer? Is it their skills in digital rendering, the clever ideas they have or is it something else? The truth is, it's managing to be many things at once and keeping a balance between communicating a concept and crafting great designs. Do you have what it takes to be a productive, happy and successful icon designer? Find out at the jump.

1. They Plan Ahead

Successful icon designers always plan ahead. They make lists of the icons that are required and sketch and refine the designs as a set. Professionally designed icons will have elements and styles that carry across the entire collection.

To plan ahead you should sketch your ideas before you begin rendering the icon. This will give you a clear idea of the final outcome which will save you time when you render and allow you to pinpoint where a design needs adjustments. There is no substitute for hand sketching as it can produce free flowing designs that are not possible to plan with shapes alone. If you're not comfortable with pen or pencil, use a digital tablet to sketch your ideas, but avoid starting your icons without some form of plan or sketch first.

Eco Icon Set by Icon Creme

2. They Know their Audience

Successful icon designers know their audience (and clients) and design specifically for their needs and expectations.

Knowing your audience is more than creating an appealing style. You should design for the visual language of your audience and create the kinds of icons they expect to see. Use visual metaphors that are common to the platform and try to design icons that will blend in with existing designs. If you're designing for a particular operating system, do some research into the technical specifications and find out if there's an interface guideline you can use.

Most operating systems have guidelines that dictate the viewing angle, the scale and sometimes even the color that icons should be supplied at, the most popular of which are the Microsoft Developers Network (MSDN), Apple's Human Interface Guidelines (for Mac OS and iOS) and the Android Developers Guide. It may be tempting to create ultra glossy icons with lots of detail, but if it doesn't match the surrounding interface elements, your design will look confusing and out of place.

Android Icons by Joker2011

3. They See the Big Picture

The difference between a good icon set and a bad icon set can sometimes be as simple as the visual balance of the designs. Successful icon designers know this and will go to great lengths to make sure each design is crafted to share the same style, colors and viewing angle as the rest of the set.

It's fairly uncommon to design icons that are not part of a set, and although it takes some extra effort to create each design to match the other there's a few tricks you can use to make the process more efficient. The first tip was mentioned previously, which is plan ahead. You should make a list of all the icons you need to create sketch them out all at the same time so each design has a similar style.

Another tip is to create a color palette that will be used across the entire set, sometimes its easy to lose track of the colors you're using and when you look at the designs later they don't match. If you plan the colors before you begin it's easier to keep a consistent style.

The final tip is to keep the dimensions, line weights and perspective consistent. The most successful icon sets have designs that carry the same visual weight across the entire set, this can be achieved by making sure that all of the lines and details are the same, that you plan the perspective before you begin to create the designs and that the icon fills at least three quarters of the available space.

Once by Delacro

4. They Are Clever

There's many icon designers out there, but the ones who really stand out from the crowd are the designers who can maintain the usability of the icons while injecting a bit of their personality into the style.

If you're creating an icon set without a strict brief or set of guidelines you may consider using interesting metaphors, crafting hyper realistic designs and choosing a style and technique of your own invention. Remember, it's not the rendering that makes a successful icon (although it does help) it's the way in which it communicates. An icon drawn with a crayon can sometimes convey more meaning than one that's taken 12 hours in Photoshop to create. Don't be afraid to experiment with style, you will learn how to convey meaning with your creations (rather than following the designs of others), you will stand out from the crowd, and you will have fun at the same time.

Gaia10 Icon set by Teekatas S.

5. They Keep an Eye on Technology

Last but not least, successful icon designers keep an eye on current trends and future technology.

With the internet, this is not a hard thing to do. Subscribe to technology blogs (I really like OS news) and follow the work of professional icon designers that you admire (there's a tonne on Dribbble and Twitter!). Keeping up to date with the current OS specifications and requirements will put you ahead of the game when it comes to creating icon sets for micro-stock sites or promoting you skills as a freelancer.

A relatively new trend in technology is the explosion of touch based interfaces that are available. With everything from phones, to tablet devices and even some monitors supporting touch screen interactivity now is the time to become familiar with the way the technology works. Icons created for touch screen technology are commonly created within a rounded square - but - like with iPhone and iPad, the corners and effects are rendered within the operating system to create a consistent user experience. Spend some time researching and using new products and software to become familiar with the requirements for good user interactivity and keep up to date with the technical specifications for each platform. Developers will love you for it.

Gesture Illustrations by Gesture Works

Do you want to know more?

I’ve just completed writing my very first book called Rockstar Icon Designer, published by Rockable Press.

The book is the kind of book I wish I had while I was learning the ropes of icon design. I cover everything from the history and theory of icon design, to best practices and methods. I also share my experiences and take readers through the whole process of creating an icon set, by going through actual tutorial exercises where you design icons from scratch.

If you think my book could help you, then you can find out more about it here.

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