The first part of creating an icon is coming up with the idea. The first step is to assess the goals of the project, but when it comes to visualizing the ideas it is best to visually get your ideas down on paper. Not in your vector graphics software, not on a tablet with a stylus. You should be using real world, physical paper. Maybe this seems backwards in this digital world of ours, but there’s something about drawing on paper, even if it’s just doodling, that gets the creative process brewing.
Besides that, sketching allows you to try different concepts quickly. Doing vector graphics well is a time-consuming process, and it’s not very efficient to just start building your ideas on the screen. Sketching allows you to quickly get your ideas down so you only spend your time in your graphics software creating what will be the final product.
“What If I Can’t Draw?”
One of the things that can get in the way of designers adding sketches to their process is the belief that they have no artistic ability. After all, creating vector graphics is very different from freehand drawing.
Here’s the thing, it doesn’t matter if you’re not a master sketch artist. I don’t care if your sketching is just well-considered doodling, if you take your time and it’s something you can translate to vector graphics then it’s good enough. Just integrate sketching into your workflow and, with practice, you will get better. Just remember that they don’t need to impress anybody, they’re just there to serve as visual notes.
What You Need
All you need to get started is a pencil and some blank paper. I recommend pencils over pens for sketching because it’s less permanent, and people make mistakes. I also find that pencils are a much better drawing tool because they don’t blot and smudge like pens can often do. If you can spend a little extra cash though, I’d recommend springing for a drafting pencil which is designed for this kind of work.
For paper, I suggest just about anything with a dot grid printed on it. A dot grid is basically what it sounds like, tiny dots arranged in a grid. The advantage of this paper is that it gives you guidance on aligning and sizing elements of your piece as accurately as possible without having a standard line grid getting in the way.
Getting Your Sketch to the Screen
Once you’ve been sketching various ideas for awhile you will eventually come across the direction you think will work. Maybe you’ll spend a little more time tweaking it on paper, but once that’s complete its time to wake your computer from sleep mode and open up your vector software package of choice.
While I don’t advocate for directly tracing your sketch, I do suggest scanning it and keeping it on your screen as a reference. You can usually import the scanned image of your sketch into your document so that you can put it side-by-side with your final artwork.
When you’re creating the final artwork, you’ll find yourself changing things as you go and that is perfectly fine. Some of your ideas may not work as well in practice as they did on paper and that’s a totally normal part of the creative process. When a movie is being made they hardly ever follow the final script to the letter, and they make adjustments to lines of dialog or entire scenes to make a better movie, you’re just doing the same thing but on a much smaller scale.