We look at our phones now more than ever, which means we spend a lot of time looking at app icons — some even become seared into our minds. So, what makes an app icon worthy? This week, Chappell Ellison and Nathan Burge chat with Jim Nielsen and Michael Flarup, who wrote an entire book dedicated to showcasing the power of app icon design. Jim and Michael share the history of app icons, their impact on your brand, and why they wanted to write a book on the topic.
Chappell Ellison What are examples of some icons today that you think are actually trying to have some fun?
Jim Nielsen I feel bad because a lot of the ones I’m staring at my at my home screen right now and they’re not that interesting.
Michael Flarup I was like, ‘please say one of mine, please say one of mine.’ [Michael laughs]
[music ramps up, plays alone, fades out]
CE Hey Nathan, what is the first computer icon you remember seeing?
Nathan Burge I don’t know about the first icon I remember seeing but I do remember, I was lucky, I’m pretty old. And I had when I was very, very young boy, my family got gifted a Tandy computer, which was like a computer that you hooked into a television and a tape recorder and you saved files to a tape recorder, like a regular tape recorder. That’s like the computer that we had. And I was obsessed with video games. But my parents would not allow me to like buy a Nintendo that had just come out. So I grew up in like Basic and MS DOS. And like, I finally got a pirated copy of like Windows 3.0. At like 10 years old, I saw icons, and it was pretty, pretty different. But I think the first the first icons I remember seeing was this computer we had came with this program called Dr. Halo. So this is kind of like a throwback graphic design thing. I remember very well we still have that computer. It still exists in my mom’s basement. But Dr. Halo was like, similar to MAC Paint or just Paint. And it had icons and some of those tools. You can see the early foundations of the other tools that are there. So tools like the paint bucket, and the ellipse tool and the rectangle and a pencil and the eraser, right this kind of like basic raster graphics. So something worth googling is Dr. Halo, and I think it was just packaged with a mouse. And at the time, like I don’t remember anyone else having a mouse, my friends would come over, again, we’re little kids, they would come over, they would be like, what’s the thing hooked into your computer? It was it was incredible. And the computer was, was MS DOS, this was the only app that used a mouse at all. It was like to help sell mice I think was this software.
CE Can you believe we once had to help sell mice? [Chappell laughs] That’s wild!
NB A strange thing.
CE The first one I remember is is very classic is it’s got to be the bomb, Mac classic bomb. Susan Kare, now famous for her Mac icons designed and it would strike fear into your heart. And it’s really incredible when you think about how a square tiny little pixels can make you feel so devastated about your life in that moment. But today, we are going to talk about what I think one might say is a humble subject. And that is the icon, and more specifically, the icons you might find on an iPhone, or any product that would run iOS like an iPad. So here Postlight, which is we got to say this, a digital agency based in New York City. My name is Chappell. I’m a strategist on our digital strategy team. And Nathan, what do you do, Nathan?
NB I’m a product designer at Postlight. So I design things. I’ve been in design a long time, worked in various fields of design, branding websites. And now I’m a product designer here.
CE Does that mean you design icons?
NB You know, I haven’t designed an iOS icon. It’s interesting like to think we’re designing products all the time and how often the the icon is just already designed, or the icon is the logo of the company or something like that, right? If it’s an app that already exists. So I mean, I have done it, but it’s more things like favicons and things like that, where you are maybe that like 16×16, or now, various versions of resolutions of favicons to load and kind of different environments. But so yeah, I have done it. But an iOS icon, I don’t think I’ve never really had to do one.
CE I haven’t either. It behooves us to actually talk to people who I you might say are experts, at least more so experts on this topic than us. Michael, Jim, I would love for you all to introduce yourself and what you do. And Michael, we’ll start with you.
MF So my name is Michael, I am a designer from the other side of the world, from Denmark. I have been working on interface design, lots of different kinds of visual design for, well, since I first got a pirated copy of Photoshop. And before the turn of the millennium. I worked on a lot of different things, and of course, worked on a lot of app icons as well.
JN And I’m Jim Nielsen. I’m also a designer from this side of the world. I have done a lot more of the sort of digital products, design related work, but had this interest in I don’t necessarily even know why, but when the iPhone first came out, had this interest in app icons and started curating this little collection of my own of just add icons that I found interesting and just visually interesting, or whatever it might be aesthetically. And I’ve been running that for a long time. So I haven’t designed that probably only designed one app icon in my life, but I’ve curated into my collection like 1000 something of them.
CE Okay, so definitely a lot we can get into. But we have to start there, Jim, which is, as you said, you’ve been collecting these things since iOS was a thing. You’ve been collecting app icons. What inspired you to do that? Like, what made you do this?
JN It’s kind of interesting that this was probably 2000, yeah, 2008, 2009, I was working my first gig out of college. And I needed to design an app icon. Actually, it wasn’t even an app icon, it was a bookmarklet icon, you know, the ones that’s like the shortcut to a webpage that you can add to your home screen, not an actual native app, I had to do one of those. And if you remember the web circa 2008, 2009, there were a lot of like, gallery websites, you know, you could Google 50 great minimalist website designs, and you could find all these galleries that would have websites, or you know, print designs, or whatever it might be. And I remember thinking, I got to design an icon, I don’t really know what I’m doing. I’ll try and find a gallery website that features app icons, you know, it’s relatively new, Surely this must exist. And I couldn’t find anything in Google. And so then I thought, oh, well, this would be fun to like, make my own website. And I didn’t even really know how to do that, like, back then I’d never bought a domain name on GoDaddy or anything like that.
CE So this was your first website.
JN My first, yeah, like I’ve done, you know, websites for people off Craigslist. But they already had like an FTP server. And IT just gave me the–so I was like, I don’t even know how to do this, I got to figure out, I guess I buy a domain from GoDaddy, I’ve seen a Superbowl commercial, I think that’s where I go for domains. And, you know, figuring that all out. Got WordPress stood up, started putting icons in there that I would find off of the iTunes web store URLs that you could open up on your browser, and opening up the developer tools, and like finding the icon source and downloading it, and then putting it into WordPress, it was a big convoluted thing, when I first started doing it, and I’ve, you know, since found ways to optimize that process, but that’s kind of how I got into it, I just started collecting them. And it was really the only gallery for app icons at the time. And, I just really got fascinated with it, the more I started collecting, the more I started noticing, you know, visual details and stuff. And the more I started noticing this random guy named Michael Flarup, who kept showing up. I would collect these icons. And when I tried to find out who designed them. That was a name that kept coming up over and over in my collection.
CE Let’s talk about the meet cute. How did you two meet?
MF So yeah, I’ve been working on app icons for a long, long time. Doing resources about our pain, app icons, worked on a resource platform with templates for icon designers, done workshops and things. So for the longest time, I’ve been thinking about trying to shine some light on this underappreciated area of design. And I really have beautiful logo design books, coffee table books on my shelf. And after, you know, having app icons be a staple part of my career for the past 12 years. I was like, why is there not a nice book dedicated to this craft that I’m so in love with? I kind of knew I wanted to make a book about about app icons. And so I wrote this person who had kept featuring my work through many years, which was Jim. And I remember just shooting him off an email while I was at swim practice with my then five year old. I was like, this is probably a long shot. But I’ll just kind of ask this nice guy if he wants to help me make a book, sort of like an impulse thing. And I think like 10 minutes later, like my son wasn’t even out of the water yet. I had already received an email from Jim, like, capital letters. ‘YES!’ So we didn’t actually know each other, we had sort of interacted on the on the web, as most of us just do on Twitter and whatnot. But that’s kind of how it got started four years ago now.
CE So what’s collaboration look like? What are each of your roles on this sort of project that you have embarked upon?
JN In the very beginning, it was a lot of, you know, Michael, coming to me and saying, hey, let’s do this book. And in order to have icons in the book, we need to find some icons. So I had this gallery. So in a way, it was like this book was kind of, you know, at that point, eight years in the making, because I’ve been collecting all these over the years since like, well, I guess I can go through those one by one, and start trying to find the people who are behind these. When you print a book, once you ship that to production, as it were, there’s no hotfixes, like that books out in the in the real world. And so we’re printing other people’s intellectual property. So it feels like we’ve got to get license agreements, we’ve got to get, you know, people that actually give us permission to print all this stuff. So In the early days, a lot of this was just, I was trying to find the people behind these. And I was sending off emails to all these people. And when I find someone, I say, hey, awesome, you know, let’s get you in the book, I’ll send you over to Michael. And I’d CC him on an email. And he’d have that legal template ready and waiting with more details about, hey, you know, in order to find your way into this app icon book, you need to sign this agreement, which just gives us permission to print your intellectual property, get us the highest resolution artwork you have, you know, those kinds of details. And it was a lot of that for like the first two years-ish. I don’t know, was it that long, Michael?
MF Yeah, I think we exchanged like 1000s and 1000s of emails, it was really a pretty daunting–I think, had I known then what I know today, I’m not sure we would have made this book. But I’m glad that we were blessed with ignorance back then. And a lot of like, yes, let’s do this. It’s definitely been four long years. Yeah, it’s just an idea that I’ve been let’s just been gaining some traction in my mind for maybe five or six years before I even started to act on it and invited Jim to collaborate on the book. It’s been a long process from the mind to the to the Kickstarter that we just finished now. But it’s been a crazy ride.
NB Something you said there, Michael, struck me, that you’re trying to shine a light on this underappreciated area of design. And I agree that it’s underappreciated, or maybe something that people don’t, they don’t understand the sort of gravity of what this kind of design meant. You know, when I got my first iPhone, which was the first iPhone, and I was the first person I knew to get an iPhone, it was a couple of hours, I immediately knew that it was like the future, like, people asked me oh, how is it? How’s the iPhone? I was like, Oh, you don’t know? It’s just it’s everything. It’s like this, this is your laptop? This is it. This is it. Everything is different now, and you’ll see when you use it. And what I wonder about is, as a designer, I was I was a designer at the time, I thought, well, they’re going to have to change this. They’re going to have to update it. This grid of icons, this layout, you know, the spacing, it’s going to have to change because software changes and trends change. And it has stuck. And I am curious about like, did the designers, they must have been aware they must have had prototypes of the phone, they must have been aware of what a game changing invention or device this was going to be, and if they took it that seriously. And I’m wondering as as you talk to people, did you talk to anybody with those early designs have, you know, the grid, the layout, that iconic, not to get defined in there, but the iconic layout of the home screen? It’s still around, it has outlived all the trends. I think that’s super underappreciated.
MF Yeah, I also feel like, first of all, I mean, the history of iconography in general, of course, goes way, way back, tracing it back to hieroglyphs, but also in interface design. It’s almost practically an ancient discipline. But what’s been so interesting about working in this field, specifically with with smart phones of touch enabled devices, is that it’s actually a really condensed history of like 12 years, maybe. It tells so many stories, when you look at as you allude to the introduction of the iPhone, through the trends, the great flattening of iOS 7, as we designers like to call it, the skeuomorphic days of pre-iOS 7. And now we’re seeing a little bit more of that dimensionality creep its way into into icons. It tells a lot of stories, it tells about democratization of design tools. And in general, like just appreciation for that whole craft. Because really, app icon design or icon design is design, it is designed distilled, because it is trying to communicate something in a restricted canvas, whether that’s for a phone or a computer or something else. I think it’s such a fascinating craft, if you can master those things inside that constructor canvas, you can really apply that to many other areas of design. I usually say that it’s like a great primer for the design in general. And also I feel like it’s it’s a very intimate part of our lives, like our phones are with us everyday all the time. Like, I would even argue that app icons that we’ve been living with, and we rearrange them on our home screens, and we have discussions when the Instagram app icon changed or whatever, people are much more in touch with this piece of visual design than they ever were with big fancy logos on billboards and whatnot. So yeah, I think there’s so many fascinating things to the particularly the history of iconography on the iPhone.
CE That’s a really good point too, about the when Instagram’s icon changed, especially when it went to like, sort of the more skeuomorphic, it looks like a camera icon to the kind of rainbow gradient it is today. People had opinions!
MF Oh, yeah.
CE Isn’t it fascinating how divisive these little things are?
JN It’s headline news, I mean, you know, all these tech blogs, like they’re literally writing about this putting on the front pages. ‘Instagram changed their app icon!’
CE Why do you think people get so upset?
MF I think it’s because it is such an intimate part of our lives. I think it’s because the touch enabled devices are with us everywhere we, we sort of curate this little digital garden in our pockets, right? We rearrange them, we care for them. So I know people that just keep apps that they might not even use that much on their home screens or one of their home screens, just because they like the icon. I think a lot of people really, they might not even know, but they really do appreciate this craft. That’s why I want to celebrate it by putting together an actual book about it.
NB What’s an example of an app that someone has told you that they keep on their phone, just because they like the icon? very curious which one which one it is.
MF There’s so many interesting sob stories in this whole thing, looking at at iconography that’s changed over the years for individual apps. But one thing that I know that people keep is, for example, something like a Tweetbot, you guys know, there’s been like this whole wealth of third party Twitter clients. One of them’s called Tweetbot, and made by a small company called Tapbots. And they make these nice little anthropomorphic like robots, it’s reflected in the app icon there this cute little robot bird, way more approachable than the Twitter logo, dare I say. And I know for a fact that even when the when people cut, there was a lot of us hassle around Twitter cutting third party apps often, you know, limiting their access to the the Twitter services. But even then, like, I know that people just kept using Tweetbot, but even if it was like a handicap service by then it’s gotten much better since then. But just because they didn’t want to have that they didn’t want to remove this cute little bird that’s on their phone. Right?
CE That’s so sad. [Michael laughs
NB Again, getting getting back to this idea of like, the impact that the design has. So you know, Jim, you’re talking about, you’re printing a book, you just said there are no hot fixes, right? This is permanent, it’s got to be right, you’re not just going to update it. But I do think about that, when I think about the importance of some of these icon designs. Instagram is a good example where everybody became very aware of it, and they had opinions and Instagram knew they people were gonna have opinions about it. And it changed something about something that they use every day. At the same time, that was maybe the most used app in the world at the time, when Instagram changed their icon right? Or close to, and they would have had the power to do that. And other apps might not be able to just swap out their their icon. So I can think of other examples of this a little bit where maybe they did it. And it wasn’t as easy. I know Slack, when the new Slack logo came out. One interesting complaint I heard, maybe this was a little more in the design community, but people whether they like the slack logo or not, they said it’s a little harder to find on my phone now, like I don’t see it, it doesn’t jump out at me the color is on the way. And now it’s like harder for me to get to it, it takes an extra millisecond to tap it like that. And I’m curious if you have stories about things like that, where there were shifts where people were just or where designers were thinking about, when I was young, if you designed a logo, it had to work on a fax machine, that was like part of logo design, like it better work on a fax machine. [Chappell laughs] And now, your logo better work on that icon, if it doesn’t, people might not use your app, it might hurt your company.
JN To Michael’s point, a lot of people, even if they’re not designers feel some of this internally, but they may not know it, which is if we step back a little bit further, in the past, when the iPhone first came out, there were a lot of like indie developers, right? Solo people making these apps. And they were sort of interesting and kind of like the early web a little bit more interesting and personalized, and you know, sort of reflective of the people who are making them because they were just making them solo in a lot of ways. And a lot of that creativity, I think seeped into the app and the icons. And you saw a lot of that reflected, especially when in the early days, there’s a lot of the skeuomorphic like real life, you know, if you wanted to make like an app about beer, you’d have this frosted glass, you know, this dripping with like foam coming down the sides, right, and you see that touch it and it was very like tactile. And I feel like as a lot of those indie developers sort of got bought up, they got acquired, they got pushed out of business, because these platforms started coming in, a lot of the design became a little less sort of individually creative, and expressive. And just a little bit more corporate, if you want to call it that, where even the Slack logo, for example, like when it just came to let’s just put it on white, put the logo on there. I feel like that’s kind of been an unfortunate trend that’s happened. I mean, even me like I don’t have like a huge following on Twitter or anything. But the one tweet I’ve ever had that went sort of semi-viral for me was that Microsoft had done the same thing with the Outlook icon. It just taken the white one, slapped the Outlook logo on it. And that’s that’s all they did. And I put a couple examples in the tweet about how there are other people who took a crack at this and made it much more interesting given the constraints of iOS Canvas for designing an icon and it was, you know, I had parts that were popping and more subdued and more color and it wasn’t just the logo popped on a white canvas. And I feel like people really connected with that. They’re like, oh yeah, I wish so many more app developers would do this, instead of just, I’ll get a white canvas, take my logo, put it on it and say done, ship it. That’s the app icon.
CE Yeah, I often wonder about that in terms of just kind of accessibility and ease of use, because I was just looking at my phone, which no one can see because this is an audio program. But I have three, just, if I look at my app drawer, I use Android, I have three icons stacked in a row, the top two are Google products. And the one below is Slack. They look so identical, that I stare at my phone on some days. And I’m just like, what do I need?
MF This is like a fight I’ve been fighting for so long. I think design can be anything we want it to be. And I’m fighting for more expressiveness and playfulness in design, I usually just kind of cram it all into the banner of calling it ‘fun’. But I think there’s just been a lot of like, yeah, minimalism or corporate minimalism, where we’ve just sort of taken the easiest road out sometimes. That’s exactly where I think app icons can play a different role from logos, logos, and app icons are not the same by the way, I understand when some services, of course need to use their logo or component of their logo mark, or whatever in app icons. Those are some of the inherent constraints of branding. But in general, if you’re making an app, you kind of want to connect with the viewer and the functionality of that app. And there’s so many ways you can do that. And of course, they’ll there’ll be trends, and I think we’re touching upon some of them in this discussion here, where, you know, Apple kind of helped move the fence post a little bit by introducing iOS 7, suddenly, everything was like this, you know, magazine layout, hairline thin funds, white background app icons, just call it a glyph on white backgrounds. Luckily, I think Apple is kind of dialing that back a little bit, you saw the new hyg on Mac iOS with where they’re basically doubling down on some of the expressiveness. And I can design that hasn’t come all the way to their native apps on iOS yet. But a lot of indie developers are now experimenting with, you know, more expressiveness, alternative app icons is also coming back now. So the users can actually customize their own software, which has been really missing from touch enabled devices for so long. So if I want my app icon to look like something else, now, you know, even the bigger brands like Twitter and stuff like that are enabling people to change the app icon to a different color or a different theme, seasonal stuff. I think that’s such an interesting sort of prism to look into, when it comes to the craft and the design of things or the expressiveness of things.
JN To Michael’s point, there’s a lot of sort of subculture to a lot of this stuff. And I could probably talk about it for way too long. But one of the interesting things that I’ve seen is some people, you’ll see these things, or people like post a screenshot of your phone, like, let me see your, you know, how you organized your app icons, or what apps you use, and, you know, people will post these screenshots, and one of the really interesting things that are trends, I feel like I saw was, some people would just say, screw it, I’m not just gonna make this category called Finance and put all my financial apps in there, I’m just gonna organize everything by the color of the app icon. So that have folders for each, like, here’s blue, here’s orange, and then when an app would update, its icon had to move it, you know, to a different grouping on their phone. And there was this kind of trend that happened where the white folder started getting bigger and bigger and bigger, because everyone just started putting their logo on a white background. [Chappell laughs] Until it was like there wasn’t a lot of other color, it was just white. And to your point, you know, when you see a white canvas with the Slack logo, which is you know, red, blue, green, the Google Photos logo, the Gmail logo, which red, blue, green, red, blue, green, and I squint can’t really tell the difference between any of these.
CE So Nathan, you’ve probably, you’ve seen a lot of brands kind of come through our doors, a lot of clients. So you might have some insight here, too. But how does this happen? How do we get to this point where you kind of have the sea of sameness effect going on?
NB I would be speculating here, but I can totally from meetings I have been in, you know, I could totally see why Nike and McDonald’s and these kinds of companies just want their logo as the icon. I know how that conversation goes, right. I mean, the sort of marketing value of having your logo on someone’s phone that they look at 2000 times a day, and there’s a little flag that says McDonald’s all day. It’s like, I mean, that’s incredible, right? That’s like an incredible power that you have over somebody that, you know, so identifiable. I bet you can’t swipe past the McDonald’s app without it sort of like subconscious in there. On the other hand, that means to me that there’s like opportunity or it feels like there’ll be opportunity to break away from it, because I think of the the apps that Apple made the sort of utilities that are in there, whether stocks, settings, maps, even calendar, those are icons, right? Those are icons that are there. Part of my phone. Like I have had the stocks app on my iPhone since my first iPhone. I didn’t delete it. I didn’t move it into the unused folder. And I have not been buying stocks very long. You know what I mean? I just kept that on the homepage. For years, no reason just didn’t move it thinking maybe someday I’ll be the guy who’s interested in looking at the price of stocks, you know? But like, those apps, those like apps with their icons, they actually feel like they’re more important to the phone, or they’re more a part of it, or they’re more useful somehow, than all the other ones. But I don’t know if you would ever convince, you know, McDonald’s to even to change it to a burger or anything like that. I don’t know.
MF I don’t think you have to, right. I mean, but wouldn’t it be cool if McDonald’s acknowledged that people don’t necessarily just want to see the McDonald’s logo but could customize it. So you could choose your favorite burger to go on the app icon or something else? Right? I think user customizability is something that some of us I was involved in the in the pre-smartphone interface design, which was very niche back then we were doing when app I have been making Winamp skins if you guys remember when wallpapers packs. I love that. It’s utilitarian art, basically. Right. And I think it’s great to allow user expression. And it’s kind of to me, it’s kind of gloomy, that like all our phones kind of look the same. And they’re all like just sort of laid out the same way. I’m not saying like, okay, everyone could just do everything. But I think there’s a lot of room in between those two extremes. And I am luckily seeing more and more people start to embrace that. Even bigger brands, like, you know, Twitter, or I don’t think that McDonald’s or, you know, Nike has some of that stuff yet. But if anything comes up like this, like conversations like these, that I’ve been having with many people, it’s that people should start to appreciate the app icon as a separate entity from the logo, it is this unique window into the functionality of this digital universe you’re building. And it doesn’t always just have to be your logo slapped on top of a, you know, a single colored square or something like that.
JN To go off that and into another one of the sub genres here. I don’t know if any of you remember this. But shortly after the iPhone first came out, you know, tied to AT&T, you had to have at&t to have an iPhone, right. And then there’s this whole jailbreak community where you jailbreak your phone, and you could use it on a different carrier. And there was this whole sort of community that came up around that and people who wanted to use the iPhone, but they didn’t want to use AT&T. And so they jailbreak their phone, which was that essentially allow you to put whatever software on there you wanted. One of the first things you started to see, there is this package, there was kind of the app store before the apple’s official app store was Cydia, which was this place where you could go and download apps for your phone, this was before Apple ever created the App Store, right. And one of the first things you saw in there were apps and app icon customizations and themes for your iPhone, and people, you know, out of their own time would spend hours creating, making it so that like, whatever the brands were back then that were on the iPhone, the male icon, the browser icon, the phone icon, that they all looked similar, they all looked like they had the same theme, you know, they create like a dark theme. So every single app icon was black, but then you’d see like, you know, the phone silhouette or the letter silhouette for the male. And they create these these overarching themes. And so your phone could look just incredibly different from someone else who was using the same phone. And this was to Michael’s point, like, this was totally just people customizing this on their own time. You still can’t do that.
MF Well, people are doing that now, right? I mean, with shortcuts. So that’s also coming back. Have you seen some of the latest trends, I even did a video on this. People will happily suffer through that basically, you should, you know, Apple’s shortcuts app to create a shortcut and then customize that shortcut with a different like a custom icon to then open up an app that’s hidden somewhere else, just and that’s that’s a one second two second delay of opening every app, just to customize the sort of stuff people they hack, like the we started out, Nathan, you started talking about like, the grid layout, people kind of hacking that a little bit with widgets now or even just sort of going with an all black wallpaper. And then hiding, you know, websites that’s a hidden as an icon on your phone, but also have that black. I do that so that I can basically build my own grid structure on every page of my phone. So people actually are trying to like bend the rules now. Not as crazy as in the Cydia days. But it’s if you Google like shortcuts, app icons, or even just on YouTube, you’ll see so many expressions of creativity. And I think that’s nice. Like I don’t want like a dystopian future where all of our digital lives are completely identical.
JN And what I think’s really cool about it, too, is a lot of people at least that I’ve talked to who designed icons, like Michael, for example. That’s where they got their start, was they were given this ability to play with this and sort of do what they wanted. They started doing it out of there, you know, just in their free time. And then they turned it into a profession. And I think that’s so interesting when you give people those sort of creative tools, you know, they find a way to make a living off of it.
MF That’s how it starts for a lot of people.
CE it really seems much longer ago than it actually was. But in the kind of mid 90s to mid 2000s, you had a whole cottage industry around things like wallpaper designs, and went Winapp and icon packs before what I sometimes call like the unibody ification of like the Internet where you could kind of break things open a little more easily. But that kind of goes back to Michael, what you mentioned earlier was the word ‘fun’. And remembering that we we should be having some fun here in this time that we have on this planet. So I would love to know, from both of you, what are examples of some icons today that you think are actually trying to have some fun?
JN So some of my favorites still remain. The ones that Michael brought up, for example, were sort of developed early on and still remained fun and interesting, Tweetbot being one of them. That icon has changed and evolved over time. But it’s still just remained super interesting to me, as some of the other indie Twitter ones, like Twitterrific is also really interesting.
MF I think a great example is Apollo, the Reddit app made by Christian Selleck. I love bringing him up, because I think he is one of the developers that spent the most money and time on art that I know of. So he makes this wonderful Reddit reader app called Apollo. And Apollo was like this cute little robot, I think I definitely have a thing for a little robots apparently. He basically Commission’s artists like myself to create a new app, I can almost monthly. And so he gives those to his subscribers so that people can customize. And so you have all of these artists interpretations of this cute little robot, and they’re so diverse. And you can really just customize them by taste like whatever you’re feeling that week. Full disclosure, I’ve made some of those icons myself. And and it was interesting, because of course, we reached out to Christian felt like we reached out to many others to be part of the book. And when Christian delivered icons, he delivered. So we’re like, what are we going to do with these 40 different icons for this one app, right? And we actually in the book, we have like a full page spread of just Apollo icons. And it’s such an, I think it’s such an interesting part of the book and the story in general. And I see more and more developers, of course, I’m at the forefront of this because I get commissioned to do icons. I make maybe 50 icons a year for the past, like, eight, nine years, or something like that commissioning, you know, as a freelance designer for big and small companies, and so I have just seen a lot of this stuff. And I’ve seen the trends move over time and all the different requests that people have. There’s a lot of good examples from the indie app space, kind of like the one from Apollo.
JN There are there are a number of people who like this is their profession, right? They get paid as freelancers or as you know, however, I’m not exactly sure how they structure their business. But they get commissioned to create these for specific people. And so like Michael is a good example, there are individual sort of teams, there’s like the Icon Factory, I don’t know if you’ve heard of that group. They create some of their own apps, which they do the icon design for, but then they also do, I believe they do some icon design for others. And then there’s other, we actually feature some of these people in the book, who there’s this team, is it the Juno team, Michael?
JN And they have, you know, this whole team of people, and they’re creating these just incredibly visually interesting, dynamic app icons for their clients. And so they just believe in putting in that work and that effort to design the app icons, and whoever the clients end up being they benefit from that. So it’s really interesting to follow particular people and agencies a little bit more than it is, you know, maybe any individual app, specifically.
MF It’s like a whole mirror industry to the logo design industry, which usually is reserved for, you know, big digital agencies or, you know, branding agencies. And I think, because of the the scope of like designing app icons, it’s more reserved for like small individual freelancers that that’s made this their speciality. That’s been interesting. We’ve seen that pattern, of course, collecting all this work through the years now in the book and just sort of seeing so many of the same names pop out and be like, oh, this individual has really contributed to this field. That’s what’s so interesting to me because if you look at logo design, there’s a lot of people that have been that’s been designing amazing logos for the past 100 years. But when you look at this very specific craft, which has such a, it interfaces, with so many people, billions of people literally every day, a lot of the art that’s at the forefront of that has really been made by a pretty small motley crew of people.
NB I’d like to hear you, you know, either you both to talk a little bit about, like, why the book, like the importance of sort of archiving and preserving it? Is it about, you know, highlighting the groups of people that were involved in it? I think of a book as more of a, as a permanent long term artifact that will definitely, you know, it’ll be around, it’ll be on someone’s bookshelf, it’ll be around for a very long period of time. So I’m curious to hear your thoughts on it.
MF I think this is such an interesting angle to the book. And so when I came up with the book of wanting to make this book, it was primarily for the reason wanting to celebrate this craft that I had that I loved, and I had been contributed to for so long. And I think Jim kind of felt the same, like we wanted to like he’s collecting these galleries for these years. And so we sort of wanted to let’s have a book about that. That was like the blue eyed optimism of like going into this thing. But one thing became clear, as we were doing the work over the years, is that a lot of these, you know, icons, a lot of the art that’s been made, it has disappeared, or are in the process of being lost to time because a lot of the work that we do as visual designers is very ephemeral. And something that’s been hitting harder for me, at least in the in the past couple of years, I also work as a game designer. Pixels are really fragile legacy to leave behind the apps are updated, you know, they’re sunset are sold, and particularly in the app space, the indie app space of the early, you know, 2008, 9, 10, a lot of those apps aren’t around anymore. So I love this art that people have sort of a connection to is disappearing. And I’m sure Jim can talk about the detective work that we did in just a moment. But Marc Edwards was a known figure in the design space, he runs a company called Bjango has a wealth of knowledge about graphic design, he’s writing the foreword for the book. And he put it so succinctly in that, I’ll try to paraphrase him here and probably butcher it. But that the pre-Internet era, software, like cartridge based games, you mentioned, Nathan, like Nintendo Entertainment systems are way better preserved. And so all the sort of software that we are producing today and in the past decade, are at risk of being lost to time, far more so and more so than the stuff that was made in the generation before us. And so really, while working on the book, it’s just become incredibly clear that we’re not just celebrating this craft, we’re also trying to preserve what parts of it is there. And a physical book is an excellent vehicle for that, sort of a keep it for future generations. That’s been like an equal goal now of the book of sorts of preserve this history, this art, this piece of art history that we’ve lived through.
JN One of the things you know, Michael brought up early on when we started looking for, okay, how do we find that people behind all these icons and reach out to them and find them? It was not an easy task, basically, scouring the internet trying to find who designed this icon, or who’s the app developer, and maybe we can reach out to them. And it was interesting to me, one of the things I feel like that struck me was the early days of iOS, and I kind of alluded to this earlier, produce a lot of indie apps, and a lot of them were like, very targeted, like, here’s your grocery store, shopping list app, you know, and that by going to be like a little grocery store, shopping cart. And a lot of those apps have since been consolidated into sort of generalized workflow apps by the big platform companies. So instead of having an app for a grocery stores shopping with an artful grocery store centric graphic, you just get like a generic To Do app from Google or Microsoft, right. And it seems like a lot of the early app developers face this dilemma of like, if you can’t turn your thing into a platform, then you’re gonna either get acquired, or you’re gonna go out of business. And, you know, through however long they were in business, they generated, you know, some traffic to their website. But a lot of the websites I found, you know, for these app developers were just, they didn’t even own them anymore. I’d find, you know, these random like click farms, where it was like, the website was still obviously getting a lot of traffic. And so there is value in owning that domain, because then you could just throw up a bunch of ads. And so somebody went to it from a link, they just see this website that, you know, didn’t represent the app developer at all. It’s just a bunch of ads. I stumbled on so many of those, in trying to find these people. It was really kind of sad to see how much of that had been lost. And so again, doing the book was all the more like, interesting to me to be able to try and preserve all of this. And it’s an interesting task, too, because so much of app icon design is a digitally native medium, right? And so when you move it to print, it’s a kind of translation that we have to make choices in. The color space, for example, with RGB, and now we’ve got to do CMYK. And like, how’s that gonna work out in that translation, right? And even like, the border radius of the icon, you know, pre-iOS 7, had a certain radius, and after iOS 7, it became the squircle, as we call it.
MF But also just to like tie a pretty bow on it in terms of what we talked about earlier. I feel like we’ve also lived through a great period of sameness in design. That’s kind of I think, We’ve touched upon this in this conversation, like a merging of styles or a streamlining of tastes or democratization of design tools. And I think many apps and websites kind of look similar today as the design industry has matured. And I think that there is something to be said for looking back at this crazy 1012 year history of playfulness in this corner of design, icon design. And I think it serves as like this great reminder, this inspiration, that design really can be anything we want it to be.
CE So why don’t both of you tell us and our listeners where we can find you and what you’re up to today and tomorrow.
MF So I’m just my last name on Twitter and every other social network, which is @flarup. And yeah, that’s probably the best place to keep up with what I’m doing. We’ve been talking a lot about the book, we’ve just been referencing it as the book. It’s called The iOS App Icon Book. The Kickstarter that we just ran from, I think we started like end of November, and it ended last Friday on December 10th, we got overwhelmingly funded. So it was it’s funded by 1346 or 64%, I think. So I was aiming for 10,000 euros to make the book and I would probably have lost money on the project, have we just reached that goal. Luckily, we reached that goal in 49 minutes, and went all the way to getting 136,000 euros or around 155,000 US dollars. It’s pretty well funded now. Pretty good. And now we actually have real brick and mortar publishers, setting up meetings with us. I think, had I pitched her a book about, you know, app icons that live on your phone four years ago, I’m not sure that we’ve been you know, a lot of open doors for me. But now it’s a completely different story. Even though the Kickstarter is done, we are still keeping pre-orders open. There’s really no reason not to until we placed the first edition print run with the printer. So when people are listening to this, and if they’re interested, they can go to appiconbook.com It’s just the website for all things this book, and they can preorder a book and we hope hope to ship it in April.
JN Yeah, if you can’t wait for the book, you can go look at my gallery iOSicongallery.com where I’ve you know, again, been curating icons for a long time. You can also find me online @JimNiels on Twitter, jim-nielsen.com because there’s a senator from California named Jim Nielsen, I think who owns the domain without the hyphens.
CE Hey, Nathan, where can people find out more about Postlight?
NB I suppose on our website, Postlight.com.
CE We have an email address. I believe it’s email@example.com. We like to build things. So come build stuff with us. Michael, Jim, it was such a treat to have you both and to talk about a fantastic subject.
MF Thank you for having us!
[music ramps up, plays alone, ends]