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Icons: Design or Illustration?

UI and UX designers are no stranger to complicated projects, but somehow icons seem to be… unique. Why do they seem so much harder than wireframing or jumping between multiple page layouts?

If you’ve ever taken on the task of designing a few icons in the middle of a project, only to spend hours getting nowhere, you know exactly what I’m talking about.

There’s a Skill Gap

Let’s zoom out a bit and take a look at what skills are actually required to make great icons. Spoiler alert, I don’t believe icons are uniquely a design skill.

When you start planning your icons, you’ll need to come up with great subject matter and simplify that subject matter into an icon. This is a skill that illustrators are particularly good at.

Because they are constantly producing visual representations of things they see in the real world, choosing the best subject matter to represent an action comes very natural to illustrators. And of course they are excellent at executing on those concepts.

Designers, however, are very technical in nature. When it comes to icons, designers are great at keeping them pixel precise, legible at scale, and goal focused with the brand identity and user interface in mind.

If you work in the UI/UX field, you know how to work with to layouts, buttons, boxes, flows, etc, but just thinking about working on an illustration might make you sweat a bit.

Sadly, the illustration process is somewhat foreign to many designers and likewise the design process is somewhat foreign to many illustrators.

Icons Ride the Line

Here’s a few things you’ll need to know when designing icons:

  • What users expect from a variety of platforms.
  • How to draw and simplify depictions of real-world objects.
  • How to keep up a consistent theme across multiple illustrations.
  • Best practices for technical scale and pixel dimensions.

Even in that short list, the cross over between designer and illustrator stands out in a big way. 

Back in 2013 I dove head first into learning more about what made icons so special. As a UI designer at a large corporation, I had a firm understanding of the design principles, but the illustrative challenge of icons intrigued me.

After practicing and learning all I could, I began to see what a unique skillset really good icon designers have. It was so compelling that I decided to keep focusing on it.

It became apparent pretty quickly that a lot of UI and UX designers struggle with icons because the illustration techniques are understandably intimidating. But here’s the good news…

You don’t have to be a designer and illustrator to make great icons

Mastering two professions sounds like a major headache. Though knowing multiple skillsets is great, there’s no need to learn everything about illustration if you want to be a good icon designer.

Icons are not full page layouts and they don’t cover entire web pages. They are small independent images that fit within a square canvas.

This means icons are not subject to a lot of the elaborate layout techniques and planning of a professional illustrative project. Of course, learning to do that is great, but a basic understanding of choosing, simplifying, and depicting single objects is enough to start seeing a massive improvement in your icons.

Ready to Simplify?

Converting complex subject matter into simplified icons can be confusing and frustrating. In an upcoming short course, you’ll learn exactly how to do it quickly and easily. Sign up below to stay updated and get some extras along the way.