Forma Icons’ Josep Duran on the stages, rules and secrets behind successful iconography design
From the minds at Forma, a graphic design and illustration studio based in Barcelona, comes Forma Icons. As their icon design division, Forma Icons specialises in meticulously crafted communication and navigation icons across a range of styles and industries. Along with an introduction to their practice, Partner Josep Duran shares Forma Icon’s process, their dream project, and what advice they would give to someone new to icon design.
PT How did you get into icon design? And how did it become such a significant part of Forma’s commercial work?
JD About 10 years ago, we designed the visual identity for El Born CC, a new important cultural equipment in Barcelona. As a part of this project, we were commissioned to design its wayfinding, which needed pictograms. The custom typography was used as a modular base to build the pictograms, and the result was a success. At the same time, we also had an illustration side at the studio, and we used icon-style solutions to solve some small commissions. Our portfolio naturally started to have more and more icon projects, and our know-how kept growing. This called for more icon commissions and one project led to another.
Icon design is a rather unknown field.
PT Why have you decided to launch Forma Icons as a separate division from the main studio?
JD There are many reasons why we did it. First, icon design is a rather unknown field, and we sometimes feel the need to explain that it exists and how it works. Second, potential clients are different from the ones that could commission us for other types of projects. Finally, icon projects have a lot of ‘visual flavour,’ and we felt the tone of our portfolio was shifting to somewhere we were not sure we wanted. In a way, potential graphic design clients could feel we were not graphic designers and potential icon design clients could feel we were not icon design experts.
The division is only for our website. We are a very small team and we all work on all the projects. It is just a way of communicating what we do in a way that targets our audiences in a more precise manner.
PT How long does an icon set take to create, from brief and initial ideas to the final design?
JD It depends on the project. Except in very small commissions, we always divide them into phases.
Phase 1 is the definition of the design principles (style and technical aspects of the set). It usually takes between two and four weeks and it only ends once it is 100% approved.
Phase 2 is the design of the icon set. It can take weeks, months or even years! We can do sprints and make a lot of icons in a week, but sometimes the client needs to divide the commission in batches to make it more manageable. Simon, for instance, is a project that started as a 50-icon commission and, over the course of eight years, we’ve now done more than 1,800.
We try to find features in the brand and translate them to the principles that define each icon.
PT What makes each project special?
JD Finding each brand’s DNA and applying it to the icon system. We try to find unique features in the brand’s logo, typography or visual assets and translate them to the design principles that define each icon. This is the most creative part of the process and a critical moment in the project. If this is properly done, the rest is always smooth.
PT Which iconography projects are you most proud of?
JD There are many and for different reasons. Some projects have been there for a long time – Simon or Nespresso. Some have been a key moment in our career – El Born CC or Dell. Some have allowed us to develop an icon and illustration system – Visa and Webex. And some have started as icon projects and have grown into larger things such as branding, app design, packaging, typography consultancy, wayfinding or editorial design – Barraquer or, again, Simon.
Another thing that makes us happy is to see the icons correctly applied. We always try to define how the icons have to be used by the client or the design team. Unfortunately, this is not always a success.
It is very much like drawing a typeface.
PT What is your dream icon project?
JD Since we started working on these types of projects, our dream job has always been to design Olympic pictograms. We admire from the most classical like Munich 72 and Tokyo 20 to the most expressive like Barcelona 92 and London 12. It is, to us, the ultimate icon challenge, as you have to solve a lot of different elements like equipment, terrains and tools while keeping consistency and applying gestures to the human body.
PT Do you have any rules or parameters that you think are essential to good icon design?
JD We like to differentiate between communication Icons and navigation Icons. This is key to understanding how we approach every project.
Communication icons are commonly used for concept explanation and are usually applied at larger sizes. Those can usually be more detailed and have more personality. Rules are looser and being consistent and visually appealing is the main goal of these projects.
When designing navigation icons, on the other hand, our main focus is to meet the technical requirements. Understanding what they are going to be used for is fundamental to defining the design principles. Once you have the technical aspects covered, you can play and see how much of the brand’s DNA you can apply without betraying functionality.
PT What would you say are the most challenging aspects of icon design?
JD Striking a good balance between drawing a beautiful icon and being consistent with the rest of the family. In the end, it is very much like drawing a typeface. You want each letter to be beautiful, of course, but the goal is that the family works well together.
PT Do you ever commission external designers, or do you create all of your iconography projects with your in-house team?
JD No, we are a small team and we do everything in-house. Only when there is a specific project that needs something special, we partner with experts in each field. For instance, we did a 3D-icon project with our friend Pocull.
PT Do you have any recommendations for designers interested in improving their skills in icon design?
JD Be methodical and do not try to be too creative or have too much personality. Be very organised, keep your files clean and the naming convention clear from the very beginning. Icon project files usually have a ton of drafts, options, explorations, etc. A project can easily get out of hand. Finally, copy a lot! Especially when choosing concepts. Using a universal concept is usually the best way to make an icon work. Then draw it your way.