I just wrapped up a quick iconography project that involved some mind mapping, sketching, and icon creation. It’s a classic graphic design practice project. That’s for a good reason – it makes you think at a certain pace, and in a bunch of directions.
Step 1: Pick some words
Start by picking a few words to work with. Words that are common but convey complex ideas are most interesting to use. I chose:
From there, it’s a free association exercise, writing ideas / things / concepts that the starting phrase makes you think of. It’s fun to trace the path your mind takes. What I came up with is below.
After you get to about 20 words, draw an icon for each of them. The objective isn’t to do a perfect job, but to sketch the first thing that comes to mind “pictionary” style.
Step 2: Combine words and icons
From there, take the root word, and put it together with a few of the words you linked to it. For instance, “laughter” + “loud” = “loud laughter”. Here are the combinations I created.
Step 3: Iterate and refine
Take a couple of the standout choices, and refine them. I liked “bright idea” and “smelly weird”.
Step 4: Pick an icon / symbol, and mock it up digitally
Out of my two nominees, smelly weird was the most fun to me. I think an important callout is that only after doing a lot of messing around and sketching is it worth taking this kind of thing to a digital level. When you’re in front of the screen, everything has plenty of white space and tends to look really good – sharp, perfect lines have a tendency to deceive the eye.
I tried out quite a few different sizes, strokes, and shading combinations.
And finally, I picked what felt best, and tested it at small, medium and large sizes.
The final product
A few things that stood out to me:
- The combined question mark motif was really fun, to me.
- Reducing an entire face down to 3 lines was an interesting exercise. I always like removing, removing, removing, until something is too abstract, and only then starting to add stuff back in.
- There is a little bit of pseudo typography going on here – the question marks seem like the letter “S”, the nose a “L” and the mouth + chin an “E”. Together, they almost sound out “SmeLLY”
Check out a similar project I worked on recently – expressive typography