The Art of Icon Design
I have specialised in designing icons for well over a decade now. Full on global deliveries too, for brands such as Spotify, HSBC, Nissan, Nokia, Net-a-Porter and Babylon. In that time, I’ve leant a wealth of lessons about icon design, but also how icons seem to fit within the context of a brand.

In the piece I wrote on LinkedIn, I cite the fact that we’re surrounded by icons. How they kick start our posts and share our favourite snaps. Allow us to edit our videos and fine tune our designs. How they control our likes and dislikes, our favourite songs and podcasts. How they’re on our wrists, in our cars, and even on our fridges. And yet it still surprises me, just how many brands out there continue to treat their iconography as an after thought. A nice-to-have, or just something to spend the last of the digital budget on.

So, I thought I’d share a few thoughts, just in case you’re considering a redesign yourself.

1. Your icons are your brands most interacted-with asset.

It is almost inevitable that if you are a brand with a digital presence, you’ll have a website, mobile/wearable apps and maybe in-store or even in-car interfaces. Therefore, the majority of your consumer's interactions will begin by tapping, pressing or sliding an icon aside. Way before they come into contact with your carefully curated content or calls to action. Like it or not, they are your 'Meet-and-Greeters'. Communicating on your behalf about your commitments to UI design. It’s best, therefore, to be clear on what they’re saying.

2. Icons are as important to your brand as your logo and typeface.

I find it fascinating that brands are prepared to commission a logo (embodying all of the values of their brand), but then download their icons from a stock library, based on nothing more than the current moods and trends. Or giving some crack-shot typographer months to perfect the type, without a moments thought for how the icons will read, sat closely alongside. Consistency is king and the details really matter.

3. Great iconography can speak a thousand words. In hundreds of different languages.

Icons are unrivalled when it comes to communicating internationally. Simple, succinct symbols, inside tiny little tiles, have the power to speak to an audience of billions. Impossible with the written word. In this age of global connectivity, it is therefore essential that you speak clearly and inclusively.

4. Bad iconography reflects the priorities of your brand.

If your brand values feature ‘magictives’ such as ‘Innovative’, ‘Authentic’ or ’Strong’, you need to double check that your icons aren’t ‘Out-dated’, ‘Generic’ and ‘Dull’. Consumers have never been so savvy, or fickle, or so switched on to good (and bad) design. We can spot insincerity and shoddy bodge-jobs a mile off. As I’ve stated in point 1, icons are your brand’s most interacted-with asset. And if they fail to live up to the same standards as the products and services you sell, then their trust in you is diminished, and the sincerity of your brand is called into doubt.

5. Icons can’t save a bad user experience.

Really, this should be rule number one of icon design… Icons provide visual representations of actions, functions and features. They offer users small glanceable clues, provide reassurance and elaborate on clipped strings of copy. But they have to make sense contextually and used with great care and respect. My personal belief is that brands should try to use as few individual icons as possible. Instead, focusing on quality over quantity and suitability over personal preference. Icons really cannot save an interface that doesn’t make sense in the first place. In reality, they may even make a bad situation worse.

6. Reference convention, but don’t forget to be unique.

The wonderful thing about designing icons today, is there are so many examples to call upon. Search for any icon on the web, and you’ll be presented with a myriad of metaphors. Some simply variations on the same underlying shape. Others, interpretations on a theme. Naturally, where very strong conventions exist, there would need to be a very compelling reason why you would choose to create something new. But building icons around tried-and-tested shapes doesn’t mean they need to be generic. Instead, they should speak with the same tone-of-voice and personality as the other components of your brand. (Another thing stock iconography isn't able to do).

7. Think about the bigger picture.

My final thought relates to appropriate representation. I believe that design (in all of its forms) has a role to play in creating a fairer and more responsible World. Therefore, I try to guide my clients away from gender stereotypes, metaphors with purely Western references and Latin characters. Instead, I encourage them to think more openly about the design decisions they make. After all, this is the World in which their brands now operate.

To discuss your own iconography strategy in person, please contact me at rob@robbartlett.design.