Icon Design: Creating Pictograms with Purpose | Edward Boatman | Skillshare

Icon Design: Creating Pictograms with Purpose skillshare originals badge

Edward Boatman, Co-founder, Noun Project

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11 Lessons (43m)
    • 1. Introduction

      1:15
    • 2. Project

      2:02
    • 3. Why is Visual Communication Important?

      2:00
    • 4. Semiotics

      4:34
    • 5. Selecting Your Sign's Concept

      2:14
    • 6. Establishing the Tone of Your Sign

      3:44
    • 7. Examples for Inspiration

      3:44
    • 8. Sketching

      8:38
    • 9. Building Your Illustrator File

      9:58
    • 10. DIY Signmaking

      3:55
    • 11. Conclusion

      1:13
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About This Class

Ever get annoyed at your housemates for leaving dirty dishes in the sink? Or want to change something about your surroundings using visual communication? This 45-minute class with the co-founder of the Noun Project — a crowdsourced visual dictionary of 150,000+ icons — will teach you how to design your own "KindSign" based on your environment and beliefs.

From concept to context, sketching to vectoring, and even some DIY tips and tricks to build a physical version of your finished piece, you’ll walk away from this class with a fun, custom icon that creates action. This iconography course is perfect for graphic designers, web designers, art directors, and illustrators who want to put some purpose in their pictograms, and ultimately turn art into action.

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Need a quick introduction to designing icons in Illustrator before you start making your KindSign? Enroll in Edward's first class for free: Illustrate Your Day: An Intro to Symbol Design

You can also bring your icons into a repeat pattern for print with the Noun Project's designer Kimi Lewis. Enroll in her free class: Designing Repeat Patterns: From Icons to Apparel and Beyond.

Transcripts

1. Introduction: There you go. You never have any excuse not to put down the toilet seat. Hi, Skillshare. My name is Edward Boatman, and I'm one of the founders and Chief Strategy Officer here at Noun Project. So, Skillshare class, what I'm teaching today is called Kind Signs using pictograms to create action. So, the class is going to be broken down into four sections. The first section, we're going to learn about the Basics of Visual Communication and Semiotics. The second section, we're going to start concepting your sign. The third section, we're going to jump into Illustrator and start creating the Pictogram. Then, the fourth section, we're going to show some really simple DIY tips and tricks on how you can bring this sign out of the digital world and into the physical world. For those of you who don't know, Noun Project is a crowd-sourced visual dictionary of over 160,000 pictograms that anyone can download and use. We helped people to visually communicate information. The fact that this rudimentary form of communication is still relevant in today's highly technological world, is really fascinating to me. Today we're going to be using that language as a force for good, and we're going to have fun doing it. 2. Project: So, Skillshare class I'm teaching today is called Kind Signs, using pictograms to create action. Signs are all around us. They guide us through our digital and physical worlds. They're telling us where to go. They're telling us what to eat, what not to eat. They literally serve as a way-finding system for our lives, and today we are going to be using this medium to shape our own actions, and the actions of those around us. So, class is going to be broken down into four sections. The first section, we're going to learn about the basics of visual communication and semiotics. The second section, we're going to start concepting your sign. The third section, we're going to jump into Illustrator and start creating the pictogram. In the fourth section, we're going to show some really simple DIY tips and tricks on how you can bring this sign out of the digital world and into the physical world. In terms of skills that you're going to learn, you're going to learn about icon design, you're going to learn about vector illustration and you're going to learn about some of the basics of visual communication. In terms of prior knowledge that you're going to need to complete this class, you're going to want to have a basic understanding of Adobe Illustrator, and if you don't have that, no worries. I've put some classes in the resource section that can help you get up to speed on where you need to be. So, one of the great things about this class is that it shouldn't take you too long to complete. Just jump in and it should only take you around half an hour, maybe at most two hours. Then finally and most importantly, you should want to take this class if you want to change something about yourself, which I would think that all of us probably do. Creating a pictogram that can serve as a catalyst for that change is a great way to make that change a reality. So, let's get to work. 3. Why is Visual Communication Important?: So, I want to start off and talk about why it's important to communicate information visually through pictograms. I think a good way to think about the power of visual communication is to think about the most important information that you encounter on a daily basis, and that's health and safety information. That information is almost always communicated visually through pictogram. That's because these little images can make a huge impact, they're incredibly powerful. Pictograms can communicate information faster than words can. Just look how fast this image on the left communicates, caution, don't fall down the stairs, as opposed to all this text on the right. These images can communicate an idea in a blink of an eye. These pictograms can also communicate information in a universal way that everyone can understand. So, if you wanted to communicate choking hazard, you could use one symbol, or you could use ten different languages. I'd like to say that words divide but images unite. Finally, just like when a word is legitimized by its acceptance into a dictionary, when you create a new symbol for an idea, it is a memorializing act that signals to those around you that that idea is important. It literally allows people to see that idea in a new light, because these pictograms can communicate information in a blink of an eye. Because they can communicate information in a universal way that everyone can understand, and because they can increase understanding and awareness around a certain subject matter, it's not a surprise they become pervasive in our society. They're used in many applications especially street signs. 4. Semiotics: So, in order for you guys to create a sign that clearly communicates an idea and shapes people's behaviors, we need to first talk about how we extract meaning from science. So, the study of science is called semiotics. When I say sign, everything can be considered a sign, everything from a thumbs-up to the wink of an eye, to a smile, to a painting in your hip, to an emoji. All those are considered signs. The philosopher, Charles Sanders Peirce, who's one of the fathers of the field of semiotics, he said that, "A sign is something that stands to somebody for something in some respect or capacity." He also came up with a triangular model that broke down a sign into its separate components. So, he basically said that every sign has three components: one is the representamen, the other is the object, and the final one is the interpretant. So, the way this diagram works is that the representamen is the physical manifestation of the sign itself. So, if we take the example of a stop sign, the representamen of the stop sign would be the red piece of sheet metal that's standing on the side of the road attached to a post. It is the physical manifestation of the sign. The object is the concept or the idea that the sign is referring to. So, in this case, it would be the concept of stopping, of slowing your speed, or halting your speed, so you stop. Then, finally, the interpretant is the mental picture that's created in the user's mind when they see the representamen. So, in this case, it would be a driver seeing the sign and knowing to stop at the dotted line. He came up with three different ways that a representamen can refer to the object it's representing, and these are an iconic sign, an indexical sign, and a symbolic sign. So, an example of an iconic sign would be where a sign physically resembles the object it's referring to. So, an example of that would be the gas station symbol. You are driving down the road, and you see a gas station symbol on a sign, and you know there's a gas station ahead. It transfer that meaning because there's a physical resemblance between the gas station symbol and what a gas nozzle looks like. The second type of sign is an indexical sign, and that's where there is a causal relationship between the representamen and the object it's representing. So, an example of that would be smoke. You see smoke on the horizon, and you know that that means fire, and that's because there's a causal relationship between those two. Then, finally, the last one is a symbolic sign, and that's where the relationship between the representamen and the object is completely arbitrary. So, an example of that would be like the radiation symbol. There is no reason that particular symbol was chosen to represent radiation. We were just taught at a very young age that symbol meant radiation. Words are also an example of a symbolic sign. It's the reason that in English, cat is the word for a four-legged feline pet, but in Spanish, the word is gato. There's just completely arbitrary relationship there. For our brief exploration of semiotics, you're going to want to know that anything can be a sign, you're going to want to know that a sign can be broken down into these three components, and then you're going to want to know that there's three ways that you can get the representamen to refer to the object, and that's through iconic sign, or an indexical sign, or finally, a symbolic sign. 5. Selecting Your Sign's Concept: So, for today's class, we're going to slightly alter this diagram. We're going to change that represent the men to sign. We're going to change object to location and we're going to change the interpretation here to action. So, you see a sign, you see pictogram in a specific location. It creates a mental picture in your mind and that inspires you to take a certain action. What I want you guys to do is to work backwards here and think about what other of action do you want to change? This can be something as small as putting away your cell phone at a certain time. It can be something as big as quit smoking, right? This is totally up to you guys. Have some fun with this. So, you have an action in mind that you want to take. Where do you want someone to take that action? Think about the location where you want that to happen. Then, think about the pictogram that is going to set off this whole reaction. For my sign, we are obviously I'm sure many of you heard horrible drought in California. I think it's really important that people conserve water and I think it's important that everyone can just make a small difference. My action is I want people to conserve water. I want them to use less water. The location in which I want this message of water conservation to be delivered is obviously at the point where someone's going to be using water. So, I'm going to put a sign up in our office bathroom. I want to put one in our office kitchen and I'd like to put one in my own house as well. I've got the horrible habit of when I'm brushing my teeth I just let the faucet run the entire time. I mean that's stupid. Why do you do that'? Right? Then in terms of the sign, we now need to create a pictogram that's going to set off this whole process and that's what we're going to do in the next chapter. 6. Establishing the Tone of Your Sign: Okay. So, hopefully, you guys know what action you want people to take when they see your sign. You hopefully know the location where you want to install your sign. Now, it's just a matter of creating a pictogram that sets off that whole reaction. To start off this exploration, I want you guys to think about how you want your sign to communicate to the audience, to its viewers. Do you want your sign to show and guide and walk people through a process? If so, you're going to want to create a sign that is kinetic and has some arrows and is more directional, so it's actually guiding people through a process. Like this. I know I like to think that we're all gentleman here in this office, but apparently, we've been informed that we don't put down the toilet seat, so I created a sign to help inform us to always do that. So, this is a sign that guides and informs people through a process that has some arrows, its kinetic, so this is one strategy you can use for your sign. You could also be more authoritative and prohibitive with your sign, so you can tell people like "No, don't do something." This is an example of, "Put away your cellphone, be present." It's using the convention of the symbolic sign, the highly recognizable no symbol to communicate that message. So, if you guys want to prohibit something, if you guys want to stop something, you guys can use this no convention. Another approach you could take is a more open-ended artistic approach. You could just simply show an image of an object and really allow the user to make the interpretation of what they think that sign means. So these are three different routes that you can go. You could again take the more process-driven one, the more directional one, the more authoritative one or you can take this more open-ended approach. So, keep in mind that whichever route you choose, the location of where you place your sign is going to influence the meaning of that sign. So for example, this very open to interpretation gifts sign. It's going to read completely differently if it's on a computer for example, people are going to read that as that computer is a gift. It would read very differently if the sign is placed above our office, for example on one of the rafters. Maybe people look at that and they think every day that they get to create something is a gift, or maybe they should be thankful, or a subtle reminder that when you're designing, you should always try to delight and surprise your users. Keep in mind that again, everything is a sign. Because of that, when you put your sign in environment, it's going to be combining with the signs around it to create a new sign. So for my sign, I want to choose the more open-ended approach. I can choose the more heavy-handed approach and be prohibitive and say, "Don't use water but I think it's a little too much." For what I want to do, I simply want to show people the affects of the drought right when they're in the process of using water, just so they're reminded to use as little water as possible. So the design challenge for me is to visually communicate the affects of the drought in a blink of an eye. So, for you guys, again, you're going to want to think about what type of tone you want to communicate with your sign and then figure out what type of visual you can use to help communicate that idea in that tone. 7. Examples for Inspiration: Before we start sketching, I want to talk about only communicating the central facts of the idea that you're going to be putting into your pictogram. So, I wanted to reference some symbols from our Noun Project collection that I think do a really great job of just communicating only the essential facts of the object they're representing. So, here's a really beautiful, minimalist, stark symbol of an astronaut. Here's one way that they simplified it is they only included the head. The head has enough information in it that you don't need to include the entire body of it. Also, notice that they're not showing a facial hair on the guy, it's just a simple profile silhouette of the nose and a little bit of the chin and then just a simple curved line to show the exterior glass of the helmet. So, they only communicated just the essential facts of a astronaut helmet. The next one here is streaking. So it's important that they didn't include all the facts to the pictogram here. We definitely want to exclude some. But again, this one is showing more of a action, it's more kinetic, there's more movement in it, it's a more illustrative type of design. So this is one kind of technique that you guys can use for your pictograms just to really make them come alive. But even though that they're moving, they're still incredibly simple. Just look how these are just a few lines, a little bit of negative space here and then the clothes are just simple geometric shapes, but it all comes together to create a really great composition. This one here, again, just incredibly simple, it's just welding. There's not even a line to show this exterior of the welding glass here. It's just a rectangular, negative space. Because it's positioned to where it is, it does a great job of communicating the glass have a welding shield, and then there's not even showing the flame of a welding torch, just simply showing a series of dots to represent the sparks flying up. So again, this is just so incredibly simple. Here's some dots again, but the material is no longer sparks, but it's saliva. This symbol is representing a sneeze or infectious disease. Again, just so simple. You have these black balls here, but then when they crossover onto the darker shape, they turn into negative space. This symbol here is for Hackathon. So, when we're creating the symbol for Hackathon, we were analyzing what are the essential elements that go into a Hackathon. Well, there's usually more than one person performing the Hackathon, they're usually on computers, they're usually solving a problem, and one of the more important things is that it's in a condensed period of time and so we try to communicate all of those facets in this design. Multiple people, a computer, and time all in one simple composition. Then lastly, we have a symbol here of a hobo. Again, it's just incredibly simple. No polka dots on the knapsack. It's just one simple line with an elliptical shape here and the motion of walking. So, hopefully, these examples give you an idea of how you can keep your sketching and your illustrations just really simple and always try to only analyze the essential facts of the object or idea you're representing. 8. Sketching: All right. So, my reference, my idea that I'm trying to visually communicate is a drought and the negative consequences of a drought. So, I just start off by Google imaging and I know it's not very unique but I always find it to be a good way to quickly get a visual idea of how to communicate something. If I simply searched drought. I try to look for some trends in here and definitely right off the bat. You can see that one visual metaphor that a lot of these photo-sharing comment is a dry, cracked earth, which is a pretty interesting pattern and design. It seems pretty pervasive throughout these images. So, I'm wondering off the bat if that's something that I could communicate or include in my design. Another interesting way to figure out what the essence of your idea is, is to Wikipedia it. It's not going to show you too many images, it's going to be more of a written description. But why I find Wikipedia interesting is it's because it's a definition of an idea and what we're doing with the pictogram is essentially creating a visual definition of an idea, so I think they're actually pretty similar. So, drought as a period of below average precipitation in a given region resulting in prolonged shortages in water supply. Really communicating the lack of water and the negative effects that a drought has on an ecosystem. I really like this visual metaphor of the cracked soil, I think it's pretty powerful and universal way to communicate drought. So, I'm going to start riffing on that idea here. I've got my pencils here, I like sketching with a whole array of different pencil weights. I feel like it allows you to create more dynamic sketches with a lot more depth and texture. So, I'd recommend just buying a set they're not very expensive at at your local art store. I always start sketching. I like using a dotted notebook because it helps me to create some grids really quickly and layout some thumbnails. This cracked soil is a really interesting pattern. The geometry of it is I think will lend itself well to just high contrast black and white. We'll probably going to want to show it not just a top-down view, we'll probably going to want to show it in perspective a little bit. So, half of it cracked soil and the other half sky, maybe we can put something in that sky. I wonder if we could put a dead fish down here or something would be like a dead fish bone to show that the negative effects of a drought. But that I'm seeing right now looks like it's underground and maybe like a prehistoric fossil, so that's probably not a route that we want to go. But hey, making mistakes is good. Another challenge that I'm seeing right now with this geometric pattern with the cracked soil is that in the Google images that we looked at earlier. Those were really powerful because it showed an entire expanse of land that was just barren and cracked and showed there was a lot of spatial perspective in there. It's going to be pretty challenging to get that in these sketches. You can see in this drawing right here even if this was all sky up here, this would not read depth, it would read more like a section cut into the earth. So, we're going to have to figure out some way to visually communicate depth. So, one idea I had was maybe make the geometric patterns of the soil smaller in the background. Then they would get larger slightly when you get into the foreground. That could be one way that we could start to trick the viewer's eye into thinking that there's a sense of depth in this pictogram. It going to be a challenge but I think it will work. Another thing you can do from perspective is pick a point on the horizon line and have everything fade back to that point. So, drawing this just quick perspective grid as I can overlay and then having the cracked lines fit this geometry a little bit. Another thing I'm noticing too is that, I'm going to want to put something to fill this negative space up here because right now it's just empty. I wonder if we could put a sun or something up here. That might help communicate the idea of extreme heat and the sun is drying out the soil and that we're in a drought. Another idea is we can show maybe a dead plant. I like the idea of a dead plant because it shows the negative effect of a drought. I feel like if you connect with someone on an emotional level, if you show them that, hey, this drought is really having a negative effect on plant life and just life in general, that people will really want to change their actions. So, I really like that idea of showing a morbid if you will pictogram. So then, trying to think about what would be some really simple gestures to show a dead plant and I think like that dead plants just wilt. The just hang over, gravity just pulls him down. Just thinking about that and thinking about how you can just make a really sorry looking plan, I think could be cool. Then showing the cracked earth underneath that. I'm starting to like that idea. It's a cool concept to explore. Again, showing the the crack pattern smaller in the background and large in the foreground is going to be important. Yes, so I really like these two thumbnails down here, the sun and the dead plants. So, I'm going to refine these a little bit more here in the sketchbook. I think it's always good to do as much work in the sketchbook as possible because it's easier to work out the proportions and the kinks and the problems you're going to encounter when you're working with paper and pencil in my opinion, than when you're working with the pixels online. I just feel like it's a more difficult medium and it's not as fluid as paper and pencil. So, I'm going to create a higher fidelity sketch here, take a photo of it and then we can start using that as a framework and a foundation for when we start working with it in the digital world. 9. Building Your Illustrator File: This sign again is six by six inches with a half inch radius. So, I want to draw the exterior of this sign now. So, I'm going to start by just drawing a circle here and I'm going to copy the circle into every corner here, taking the correct radius and just draw a rectangle to form out. So, this is a shape for a sign. I'm going to actually join all these shapes together and then make an outline of it. Now, I want to add an eighth-inch dark line around the exterior of it. So, if we know that each square here is a 16th of an inch then if you want an eighth-inch line then it's just going to be two of these cells. Again, it's a really nice thing about working on this grid. Then, I'm just going to rotate this. I'm just going to do an arc to connect the two and then I need to do that, add an eighth-inch line, and then I'm going to need to obviously turn this around. I want to leave a inch border on all sides from the edge of the pictogram. So, I'm just going to put a little guideline in here. So now, I'm going to start making some basic lines for my pictogram here. So, I want to use an eighth-inch line throughout the design, and it's really important when you're designing your pictogram to have consistency in your line weight throughout the design. If you don't, then it's going to start to look jumbled and it starts to look more like an illustration and less like an icon and we don't want that. So, we have a horizontal line here, a horizon line. The plant is going to go in this area above but I want to tackle the cracked earth pattern below. For that, what I'm going to do is just create a simple five-sided shape using the pen tool. I want to have rounded corners on these as well so it kind of softens up the design, and so it matches this round cap here as well. One thing I'm noticing is that we're not going to be able to have a design where- we just have a hard line here obviously because it's going to look weird to have a really well-defined area where all the soil is, it's going to lose that idea of a visual perspective. So, we're going to have this pattern fade out and dissolve into the negative space around it. So, I think we can just do that by having a couple of lines to start moving off and not closing them. So, it looks like this pattern is opening up to the margins. So, that's the first row and again, I can probably make some of these smaller because I zoom out and that still reads pretty well when that design is at a smaller scale. So, I want to make some of this negative space in here a little bit smaller by adding some lines, because again we want this to read like it's really far off in the distance. Now, starting the second row now I'm going to begin to make these geometric shapes a little bit bigger not by much though, but to really keep that illusion of depth. The choice of the plan is that it's going to be more obviously biomorphic in form, it's going to be curvilinear. So, it's going to really contrast with the kind of rectangular shapes down below which I think actually will help soften up the design a little bit. Now, everyone's got a different style for drawing curves in Illustrator. I like to just think of the way the curve eventually is going to end up and I like to think about how many vector points there are going to be in that curve. So, I have the general shape mapped out and I know that there's just going to be four vector points. So, I just create those four vector points. So, I'm not so concerned about where they're placed. I just get them down on paper and then I go in and place them with more detail, and then start to smooth them out. I'm trying to make this plan look as sad as possible. It's kind of sad. Again, you can see that for this plan, I'm using an eighth-inch line. You got to have that cohesion throughout your design when you're creating a pictogram. If not it just begins to fall apart and it doesn't look as professional. So, again try to keep your line weights consistent throughout the design. All right so, for the leaves, they're organic shape and there's always a contrast between creating something that's so organic that it begins to look like an illustration and less like a pictogram, and then creating something that's too geometric, too rigid, and then it doesn't look like a leaf, it doesn't look organic. So, I've found a good way to mesh those two together is to start off by drawing a leaf that's just pure geometry. So, you can just do that by drawing a circle and then [inaudible] it's too bigger one here, you can shrink that down a little bit. Then just turning that into an ellipse by extending out these lines and then making these points, sharp corners sort of curved one and that's suppose to give you nice geometric leaf. Then what you can do is you can start to manipulate that a little bit and make it look more organic. I feel like because you're starting from pure geometry, it still holds that nice pictographic quality to it. It's also hard when you're drawing a plant like this, you have to think about gravity which is kind of a weird thing when you're designing something that's 2D but you have to think about how gravity is going to pull the leaves, and pull the leaves down and how that's going to shape them because if you don't think about that and you design it so it looks like gravity is not taking effect, it's not going to look right, and you'll probably rack your brain thinking about why it's not looking right. That's one little reason why stuff starts to not look real is because it starts to break the laws of physics and science. So, you should be thinking about that sometimes when you're designing things that look organic. So, I think I need to add a couple of more leaves here, and I can just take the existing ones that I have and scale them down. So, we have this beautiful design here. It's communicating a really cool message. Let's figure out some ways that we can bring it to life and bring it into the physical world then actually get people to start using less water. 10. DIY Signmaking: All right guys, you've made it to the final step of the class and this is bringing your sign out of the digital world and putting into the physical world. I'm just going to walk through a couple of really simple, quick examples of how you guys can do this. So, the first example here is we're just going to simply mount it on foamcore, so all you're going to need is just a print out, eight and a half by 11, some foamcore, rubber cement, and X-ACTO knife. It's pretty, simple so let's do it. Now one interesting tidbit about rubber cement that I never really knew until college was you're actually supposed to put it on both sides of what you're gluing together and then allow both sides to dry, and that allows for the strongest bond. I don't know why but I love the smell of rubber cement. So, you want both of these to dry. I know it seems counter intuitive, you'd see that you'd want the rubber cement dry but we actually want it to dry. All right. So, once the rubber cement has dried, just simply place it on here, give it a couple of good rubs and now it's on there. Then you just simply cut around the edge and you'll have yourself a pretty professional looking sign. There we go. What's nice about foamcore is it kind of has a little bit in depth, so, when you put it up, it actually kind of looks substantial it kind of has a nice architectural quality to it. So, that's one option you can use for a sign, really simple. Doesn't cost hardly anything to do. You can get foamcore at any craft store any art store. Another option that I want to show you guys. If you want to use spray paint and criti stencil. I just used like an old cutting mat that I had at my house it's kind of one of these that's pliable, malleable. The reason cutting mat works well is if you use paper or cardboard then you use spray paint, the cardboard will kind of absorb some of that spray paint and a plastic cutting mat just kind of repels. So, this is another good way that you could get your sign out into the environment. There you go. You never have any excuse ever again not to put down the toilet seat. 11. Conclusion: All right Skillshare. So, this brings us to the end of the class. I hope you guys learned a little bit about visual communication and are inspired to go out and create your own sign. Again, the steps you guys you're going to go through are, you're going to concept your own sign then, you're going to design a pictogram that you can place on the sign and then the last step is you're going to physically make that sign and hopefully, put it out into the world where it can shape people's behaviors. I can't wait to see what you guys come up with and I can't wait to see your guy's work in the gallery. I'm hoping that I'm going to download some of your signs and put them in my house or my office, and I'm really excited to see what you create. Just remember that these little images can have a big impact and that's because these pictograms represent ideas and ideas can be powerful. When you communicate an idea visually through a pictogram, you're communicating that idea in a universal way that everyone can understand and it literally allows people to see that idea in a new light. So, thanks a lot and look forward to seeing your work.