How to create an icon using mind mapping and sketching

This is 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

The exercise starts by picking a few words to work with. Words that are common but convey complex ideas are most interesting to use. I chose:

  • sight
  • smelly
  • love
  • laughter
  • fast 

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".

"Bright idea"


"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.

Testing shading & stroke combinations


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"