Icons Icons Icons!

Not long ago a fabulous post on doodling appeared at one of the blogs I frequent on a regular basis, Subtraction. Khoi Vihn, the site's author, posted some absolutely lovely doodles he'd made, and I was instantly transported to my note-taking, doodle-drawing grad school days. It was kind of magical, and I really liked that idea for a blog post. And while I've decided I'm way too lazy and busy at the moment to scan my doodles, I did feel TASB could use a splash of the creative. I am, in addition to being a SysAdmin, a visual artist, after all.

Since this site is primarily about systems, it seemed appropriate to focus on an art form specifically related to the computer. And since I dabble in icon creation, and have worked up quite a collection over the years, I've decided to post a little sampler, and talk about my process. Just for a wee change of pace. Just for fun.

This is the first icon I ever made. I labored on this thing for days, trying to get that shiny, translucent, jelly bean look so prevalent on the Mac. Yes. It totally sucks major ass.

My First Icon: It Sucks Major Ass
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I quickly outgrew the glossy, candy-coated style — especially once I realized that I sucked at, and didn't enjoy making them — and started developing my own. I have two basic styles. The first one to emerge was a very flat, geometric style. My process is not very elegant, but I've used it for some time now and it works so I stick with it. Basically all the drawing is done in Illustrator. When I get a version I like I simply copy and place it into a 533x533 pixel Photoshop document. Typically, some color correction is required after the transfer. Mainly, the blacks get washed out, so I have a Photoshop action that selects the black range and drops it down to zero. Then the image gets resized to 128x128 pixels. Finally I use IconFactory's IconBuilder 5.1 plug-in (no longer current) for Photoshop to export the image to the icon format. Typically, here I just do a "QuickBuild" (which, unfortunately seems to be missing from later versions of IconBuilder). I don't really worry about creating multiple versions of my icons for different icon sizes and views. I just try to make icons that scale reasonably well. This is for fun after all. I'm not a pro, nor do I aspire to be.

Geometric Icons: Not Quite as Sucky
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The second style, and the one I generally prefer to work in nowadays, is more hand-drawn and cartoonish. Still somewhat flat, with some shading but no gradients and far less geometry than the above. These are all done using my trusty WACOM tablet, which I simply adore. Working this way allows me much greater expressiveness through line weight and shape, and through the individuality of my own particular drawing style. Plus it's just way more fun, though it can be a lot more work to get everything looking just right.

Hand-Drawn Icons: My Personal Faves
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A lot of these icons were intended as drive icons. I have a few different computers I work on regularly, and I tend to file-share between them a lot. Each has a SysApps partition and Work partition. Labeling each SysApps and Work drive on each system, while being aesthetically pleasing, also has the added advantage of making it very easy to distinguish which SysApps or Work drive I'm accessing at a glance when file-sharing. It's both practical and pretty. (Well, I think so anyway.)

Marx Brothers Icons: I Got Paid!
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Recently someone took notice of some of the icons I'd used in he lab and commissioned me to make him a custom set based on the Marx Brothers, he being a big Marx brothers fan and all. We worked together to figure out what he would like, and he gave me all kinds of resources and suggestions for the project, but I had a lot of freedom. It was the first and only job I've ever had like that. The first time I've ever had to create something visual for someone other than myself, but he was very cool to work with, I liked the challenge, and it was a really fun process. Basically I worked on it in my spare time, and I'd show him progress sketches every so often. He'd give me feedback and I'd go work on them some more and show him the results when things got good. The thing I liked best about the project was this outside feedback. It really kept me from being lazy. And in the end the icons were far more polished than I think they ever would have been had I just been working on them alone. I'm kind if a loner in a lot of ways, both professionally and personally. Not a big collaborator. But every now and then it's great to have some outside eyes. Some second opinions.

Which, now that I think about it, may be the whole reason to have a blog.