Tips for Starting a Career as an Icon Designer

Designing icons can be a lucrative career niche for any graphic designer, artist or illustrator. With the rising number of websites and apps created every day, the demand for icons is only growing. As an icon designer, you can sell your designs on a site like Flaticon or as custom sets for special clients.

If you are interested in pursuing a career in icon design, here are some tips to get you started.

Start thinking in pixels and grids

The biggest and most important tip we could ever give you is to start thinking in pixels. Designing pixel-perfect icons is a technique you need to master. For that, you have to train your brain to think in a square grid.

When you start designing an icon on Adobe Illustrator, you will always need to use a pixel-perfect grid where each square is one pixel. That’s why it’s better to prepare your creative brain for those parameters.

Start Sketching

Get yourself a notebook with squares or dots on a square grid. Finish off the set with a nice drawing pencil and soft eraser. Start by copying icons you have on your computer or search for some new ones. Practice copying those icons by using the grid on the pages of your notebook.

Notice how most icons have a sense of symmetry. Groups of icons are designed following the same basic style. A set of technology icons might all have the same rounded lines with the same thickness, or a duotone effect. 

Practice until you can start making your own variations of the icons you copied. After that, start sketching a set of icons on a new page from your own inspiration. At first, stick to general categories like education, business, marketing, and SEO. 

Then when you get the hang of it, delve into different topics. 

Get knowledgeable about icons and symbols

When you take breaks from sketching on your square grid notebook, do some research. Study about the history of symbols and how they are different from icons. Read articles about famous icons which have turned into everyday icons, like the ankh and peace sign. 

Look up old books about graphic design and study what icons designers were using in the 70s, 80s, and 90s. Study how icons have evolved with the spread of mobile UX design and how they are now more versatile than ever.

Search the internet for exclusive font designers and see what they are creating. Be amazed at animated and interactive icons. Create a collection of icons on a Pinterest board or your favorite inspiration organizers, like Milanote or Trello.

Start practicing on Illustrator or Inkscape

When you feel like you have a good idea of how icons are created, it’s time to go digital. Watch some video tutorials about icon design in all different styles. Don’t just watch beginner tutorials, go ahead and watch intermediate ones, you don’t have to follow along every time. Even if the tutorial seems too advanced for you, you will start catching bits and pieces of information that can help you later.

Always set up your document preferences with a pixel-perfect grid. Zoom in to the point where you can see the grid to make sure your icons are aligned along the grid. 

Find your style

As you practice and create a few icon collections you will notice a pattern. It can be either in the way you draw the icons or the thickness of the lines. You might prefer drawing freehand on your tablet or build icons with shapes. Both are perfectly acceptable but one might end up being your personal style. 

When you finally find your personal style, create a collection of icon sets. If you sell these on Flaticon and someone chooses one of them, it will be easier to suggest more icons in that style. Also, clients who like your style but don’t want to use stock icons will ask you to create a special set for their brand.

Learn some UX design

Icons are a huge part of UX design. They are everywhere, from website to apps and mobile games. Knowing at least a little UX design will give you the advantage over your peers and competition. Designing icons with UX design in mind will make sure your icons are optimized for screens of any size. 

Look for some UX designers to collaborate with. Offer to make a set of icons for their project in exchange for some knowledge on how they design include icons in their designs. They can tell you what they consider a good icon and when they deem icons unusable.

You’re on your way!

All it takes to start a career in icon design is to have the passion to do it. If you are already an established graphic designer, the journey is that much easier. The most important thing we want you to understand is that it takes lots of practice. After that, you need to find your style so that your art gets noticed instead of blending with the rest.