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Interview with Gavin Nelson, product and icon designer

10min read

Gavin Nelson is a product and icon designer who focuses on crafting seamless user experiences and pixel perfect app icons.

This interview is part of a series by Compound. Compound provides everything you need to manage your personal finances (advice, tracking, investments, taxes, borrowing, estate, and more).

How did you get into icon design? What was the first thing you worked on?

Over a decade ago now, I stumbled into some icon designers posting work on Twitter and MacThemes' forums, and I had this moment where it clicked that the icons I was looking at every day on my Mac were handcrafted by designers. I was instantly obsessed with the craft and figuring out how I could make some myself. I dove into learning Photoshop — layer styles, masking, blend modes, etc., and tried to start copying existing work as a way of dissecting it and understanding how it was made (something I recommend anyone who wants to learn does too!).

I'm pretty sure the very first icon I tried to make was this 32px gear icon. This was before I knew what anti-aliasing was, and when I thought complex icons were made by hand placing each pixel. Luckily, I've learned a few things since then. More recently, when I started doing more serious part time freelance icon design work I had the pleasure of working on an app icon for Claquette which kicked off a series of great clients to work with and lead to me where I am today. 

When and why did you start sharing your work on Twitter? 

I started sharing my work as soon as I began creating it — you know the saying: "share work early and often." When I was first starting out, there was a very active icon design community on Twitter and Dribbble and I was eager to receive feedback from more experienced designers. 

What of your work are you most proud of? Why? 

There's a few icons I'm particularly proud of. While it was just a "for fun" weekend project, I'm really happy with how my take on the Things icon came out. It was one of those icons that I had an idea for and was able to seamlessly take it out of my head and get it into the computer just the way I imagined which is a fantastic feeling. 

The icon I worked on for Jordan Singer and Diagram, Xdesign, is another favorite of mine. I felt like it took all the skills I've been practicing for years to pull off and I'm very happy with how it turned out. 

Some others, because it's so hard to pick favorites:

  • 1Password: It was an honor to be able to work on the icon of a product I've been using for years
  • Linear: Really pleased with how this icon came out and that a company that values craft so highly trusted me to make an icon for their product
  • GitHub Holo: A comparatively simple icon execution wise, but I was happy to see it spark a lot of discussions, ideas, and other icon mock-ups when it shipped

Are there any icons you particularly admire (that you didn’t work on)? Where do you get inspiration from?

Absolutely! Here are a few off the top of my head: 

Ollin's old Squash icon

Matthew's Bento icon

The Transmit truck

I'm a serial inspiration-image-saver and keep a large collection of icons, user interfaces, gifs, bookmarks, etc., accessible that I often pick through and organize in a nice local app, Eagle. As of writing, I've got just about 5000 image files in my collection, and half of those are icons.

You have shared some of this but what is your icon design process like end-to-end? How do you decide on the direction and when do you start thinking about the nuanced details?

I don't usually follow a strict process for creating icons because each one benefits from different approaches. For some icons, I fully render them in 3D and spend a lot of time iterating on the modeling, lighting, and shading. For others, I only spend a little bit of time in 3D to make a reference that I then redraw in vector. And for some, I need to spend a lot of time sketching to get the concept right before even touching vector or 3D tools.

In general, I like to get a good idea of the overall concept for the icon through sketching or rough vector drawing. Then, if things are working, I'll progressively add more detail. It doesn't make sense to focus on minute details if the overall concept isn't working.

As far as deciding when an icon is finished, or a direction is the right one, it gets fuzzy. I think it comes down to taste — the more icons I create, the more I analyze and absorb, the better I feel I get at narrowing in on a solid direction to take a project. On the other hand, sometimes it's a matter of trying a hundred different variations and seeing what resonates.

How would you describe the difference between product and icon design? What skills are different? What are the same? 

I see product design more as a practice of problem-solving, whereas (app) icon design is about crafting a visual representation of the product's values. There's certainly a lot of overlap in skills though — in my experience they both focus heavily on feedback loops and incrementally iterating your way towards a better solution. Being able to rapidly generate and try lots of ideas benefits both disciplines.

As a product designer, how do you think about balancing engineering speed with design quality? 

This is something that I find myself constantly thinking about. There's no perfect answer to this question other than it is exactly what it sounds like — a fine balance. One of the GitHub product design principles is "incremental correctness," which I think captures a great approach towards this balance. The idea is that you ship incrementally correct versions of a product that iterate on the last and get better over time. This encourages you to keep shipping to get tighter feedback loops but also allows you room to consider the details and ship high quality work. 

What advice would you give to someone with no online presence that is looking to build one? Any tips on being successful? 

I'm sure this has been said time and time again, but I'll repeat it just in case: be yourself and don't think too hard about it. In the design community, share what you're working on, genuinely participate in discussions about it or about others' work, and focus on making connections by doing and posting what you like to do. This essentially eliminates the "work" from building an audience — it's probably not going to feel great if you build up a presence by putting on a facade or doing growth hack-y things.

What do you think people misunderstand about design that you really believe in? 

I really believe in the concept of emergent properties that stem from the idea that "the whole is greater than the sum of its parts." A design can be 80% of the way there, but the remaining 20% can add more than 20% of the value to the end result. 

I'm not sure if this is really a misunderstood idea about design, but rather one that may not be as popular of a philosophy to follow and one that has its fair share of counterarguments. It boils down to the notion that the craft of a product matters deeply for personal reasons and for external reasons. The classic Steve Jobs quote on the topic:

“When you're a carpenter making a beautiful chest of drawers, you're not going to use a piece of plywood on the back, even though it faces the wall and nobody will ever see it. You'll know it's there, so you're going to use a beautiful piece of wood on the back. For you to sleep well at night, the aesthetic, the quality, has to be carried all the way through.”

This is also part of the reason I appreciate products with well designed app icons — it's a signal that their values likely align with mine. If a product is willing to polish the heck out of an app icon and demonstrate their taste through it, I feel like I'm more likely to find a high level of craft and attention to detail in the product itself while using it.