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Design icon: Jon Hicks

We have always hoped that British design legend Jon Hicks would join the ranks of Affinity Designer users, and now he has! So it seems the perfect time to find out more about Jon, his work and how he approaches design…
In your own words, who is Jon Hicks?

I’m a graphic designer based in Witney, Oxfordshire, UK. Together with my wife Leigh, we run a design partnership that goes by the (imaginative!) name of Hicksdesign. We work for a wide range of disciplines, from print to screen design, but are probably most known for our branding and iconography. We’ve worked with clients like Dyson, Mozilla, Skype and Spotify.

You’ve worked on some high-profile projects like rendering the Mozilla Firefox logo and the MailChimp logo. What has been your career highlight so far?

Firefox was great timing as I’d just started Hicksdesign the previous year (in 2002), and it helped me build an online profile that has spawned everything else I’ve done since, so I’m immensely grateful for it. MailChimp was great fun too, and one that came together really quickly, one sketch and then the final mascot.

MailChimp logo designed by Jon Hicks.

However, my highlight so far has been working with Spotify on their new icon set back in 2014. It was a project that combined my love of icons with my love of music. I particularly enjoyed creating the genre icons, where we chose a musical instrument to represent a musical style. Various styles of Rock each had their own specific guitar.

Most of the work has already been replaced in subsequent redesigns, but some of the genre icons I made are still in use. It was also useful for explaining to people outside of our industry what I do—I could open Spotify on their phone and say, “that’s what I do!”.

Icons designed by Jon Hicks for Spotify.
What inspired you to work in your field?

Originally, it was my art teacher at secondary school, Mr Grafton. He encouraged me to stretch myself and not just draw Iron Maiden derivative art (as I had wanted to do) and always try new things. Art was the only subject I was ever any good at, and he guided me to skip A-Levels and go straight to art college.

Later, the work of David Carson stretched my ideas of what print design was capable of or should be, then Brendan Dawes, Joshua Davis and sites like Pixelsurgeon got me excited about the possibilities of online design. Lars Jonsson is my favourite bird artist, he manages to capture light so, so well and his subjects never look lifeless. I collect all his books and pouring over them is one of my favourite ways to relax. I also love the work of contemporary illustrators like Celyn Brazier.

Even though my work looks like none of these, it’s what gets me going!

You’ve told us that you are colour blind, what positive (or negatives!) do you think this brings to your design process? How do you think it informs your approach to designing?

My red/green colour-blindness means that I confuse green with brown, and blue with purple (sometimes even pink and grey!). It’s particularly tricky when it’s small areas of colour, such as colour swatches.

I don’t think it holds me back too much though, especially now that I mostly work on design for screens these days. Using HSL colour is the key to this, as I can be sure what a colour is, and create new ones, just by looking at the hue value. I may not see that it’s purple, but I know from the hue number that it is.

If there is one disadvantage, it’s that I’ve been perhaps a little unadventurous with colour in the past. When I’m not working on monochrome on things like icons, I’ve tended to fall back on tried and trusted colour schemes that I know will work. Particularly with plain white backgrounds. That’s something I think I’ve got better at in the last couple of years, but there’s always room for improvement.

Illustrations for DuckDuckGo by Jon Hicks
What would be a dream project for you?

I would love to be responsible for creating a really large-scale icon system, from scratch. I’m open to who that could be for—a software company, car manufacturer or public transport system. I did some work for Dyson a year ago, who had various departments creating iconography that was applied in all manner of ways—laser etched onto metal, printed onto plastic or displayed on a screen. They asked me to audit their existing work and create a Principles document to get all the departments aligned. I dropped loads of hints about how “this is really a full-time job for ‘someone’…” but they didn’t rise to it. It was also in the news that they are working on an electric car and I thought “I bet there’s a LOT of icons that they need there!”.

Have you got any fun stories from jobs you’ve worked on?

A couple of years after I redesigned the MailChimp mascot, they sent me a plush doll version in the post as a thank you, which I gave to my children. When you pressed it, it said something, but we could never work out what it was. Apparently, it was ‘Hail Satan’ and they were horrified that I’d given it to little people!

Do you have any superstitions/self-enforced rules you live by?

I go by Anthony Burrill’s very simple maxim “Work hard and be nice to people”. That encapsulates everything really!

“Work Hard & Be Nice To People” print by Anthony Burill
They say you never stop learning, what’s the most recent thing you’ve learnt?

Apart from learning to use Affinity Designer, I’ve recently been working on an identity for accessibility specialists and learning more about how accessibility affects my work. For example, I’ve known for a long time that it’s good practice for images on the web to have a text description in the form of an alt attribute. When it comes to company logos, I’ve always thought it should simply state the company name, but that’s not the case. It provides a place to explain the meaning behind the logo. It’s been a fun challenge to think of logo ideas that are less abstract and can be described.

How would you describe your approach to design?

I really try to keep it simple as possible. Not to over-complicate it, or get bogged down worrying about fashion, but hopefully still have enough personality to avoid being bland.

Zip Money icon set designed by Jon Hicks.
What would your advice be to budding logo and icon designers? What things do you wish you’d known at the start of your career?

I call it practising ‘input and output’. Digest as much as you can and from different disciplines; books, articles, YouTube videos, podcasts or viewing source on webpages. Keep a scrapbook of all the interesting things you see. Trace artwork you like and work out how it was put together. Then output it: write about what you find or have learned about and experiment. This process will improve you as a designer.

“I call it practising ‘input and output’. Digest as much as you can and from different disciplines; books, articles, YouTube videos, podcasts or viewing source on webpages. Keep a scrapbook of all the interesting things you see. Trace artwork you like and work out how it was put together. Then output it: write about what you find or have learned about and experiment. This process will improve you as a designer.”

Jon Hicks
Logo grids can be a controversial subject for designers—where do you stand on this?

Grids are only ever a starting point for a design, not a be-all-and-end-all. In icon terms, they’re good for making simple geometric shapes consistent, but so many icons (e.g. ‘a thumbs up‘ icon) aren’t like that. As with all grids, it’s knowing when to break it to get the best result.

Too often with logo design, it feels as though the grid was added after the logo was made. Like a way of justifying the decisions that were made and making it seem more ‘clever’. It can feel quite forced and was parodied superbly with this recent tweet:

Sometimes, the best logos have never come near a grid. They’re just a simple shape that really works.

Where do you see yourself and your work in 10 years?

I’m really not one of those people with a big game plan. I find it hard to think beyond the next few days. Hopefully I’ll still be earning a living in the only field I was ever any good at! Also, I’d like to be using a 32” iPad Pro please! ;)

What are you working on right now?

I have a few projects at the moment, and as well as working on an icon set for the Emirates Bank in Dubai, I’ve just finished an icon set for a ‘major motorsport broadcaster’. I’m not allowed to say who it is, for reasons of supplier relationship rather than project secrecy, but all being well they will be seen on Channel 4 very soon ;)

Are you working on a new version of ‘The Icon Handbook’?

I am! When I wrote the first edition of The Icon Handbook in 2011 I had one vision in mind: a coffee table book. I wanted a large colourful tome that would showcase the beautiful photorealistic application icons that were popular at the time. I included chapters on history of icons, interviews with other icon designers and all sorts of extra content. I wanted it to be as comprehensive as possible.

‘The Icon Handbook’ by Jon Hicks.

For the second version, I’m taking almost the opposite approach. It’s being re-written from scratch (none of the original text is staying) and will be smaller, simpler and very concise. There will be no interviews or history, just a walk-through of the process of creating symbols and pictograms with more illustration and less text. It may even end up being black and white!

Tell us something we probably don’t know about you.

I originally trained as a wildlife illustrator, rather than a graphic designer. Design was always taught as part of the course in order to give college leavers more skills and it came in handy. When I left college, I found the market for wildlife illustration very small, and poorly paid. Instead I got my first job as a junior designer for Coventry City Council and learnt that way ever since.

I’ve recently got back to wildlife art as a pastime when I got an iPad Pro and Pencil. I’ve used both Affinity Designer and Procreate for this, and I’m still experimenting with a more vector stylised approach in Affinity.

‘Tufted Duck’, illustration by Jon Hicks made in Affinity Designer.

Find out more about Jon Hicks on his website, and follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

The Icon Handbook is available to buy, though keep your eyes peeled for the next version which Jon is working on right now!

For further reading, we love this article Jon has written recently: ‘Using the iPad Pro as my main computer’.

Head of content and learning

Kate heads up our artist relations, content and learning teams. She loves talking to creators to find out more about their artistic practices for Spotlight and sourcing new content for the Affinity Store.

Credits & Footnotes

All work shown copyright of Jon Hicks, except for “Work hard and be nice to people”, which is copyright of Anthony Burrill and available to buy here.