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Designing a travel icon set with Isabel Sousa

Designing icon sets can be a tricky business, but we knew that we would be in safe hands when commissioning a set themed around Travel from freelance art director Isabel Sousa.

Some designers and illustrators are a dream to work with and Isabel is one of them. We couldn’t think of a better person to tackle a travel icon brief with professionalism and her own unique and quirky style. She was also happy to talk us through her design process.

I was more than delighted when I found out that the theme of my icon set for Affinity would be travel. As an intrepid traveller, I was ready to go for it!

I have been following pretty much the same process since I first started working as an illustrator. As you probably are familiar with, every creative endeavour can be truly scary when we are in front of a blank page. We aim to come up with work that will please us (and, fingers crossed, a client). But this is easier said than done. We all know the struggle that comes when we have to come up with something interesting about subjects that don’t excite us too, but fortunately for me, this wasn’t the case.

I always take the first step by creating a word cloud to kick off the entire process.

Doing this enables me to unlock many not-so-obvious ideas that will lead down exciting paths. It pushes the brain to make more unconventional connections that will reveal glimpses of promising ideas. Go after them!

I can’t stress this enough: try not to be too hard on yourself—this is the time where every single idea is welcome, so don’t censor anything. That comes later.

Next on the list, I attempt to convert these words into drawings. You know you are onto something when your hand acts like it has a life of its own. For that reason, it is not unusual for me to draw the same subject in two or three different ways.

Another rule of thumb that I always follow is to draw as much as I possibly can. To give you a reference, for this particular project, I created more than 50 sketches. This way, I managed to get a good pool of options.

Now begins the troublesome part of selecting the ten most promising sketches to be worked over digitally in Affinity Designer. To that end, I digitised the drawing, taking a photo with the camera on my iPad. Although sketches on paper are something special, we all know that the magic really starts now.

With my drawings digitised, I enabled snapping on my settings to get a pixel perfect result (and as a way to comply with my perfectionism). With this option selected, I created a grid, which in this instance was a standard grid with 50 pixels of spacing. Then, I created a 350x350 pixel square and duplicated it 16 times on the artboard.

The grid Isabel created to design the icons.

I placed the photo of the first icon—the camera—on the first square. With it, I applied a small trick that makes my life easier: I rotated the sketch and fitted it to the grid. Such a method allows me to shape layers and align the items more quickly.

I then changed the sketch blend mode to multiply, turned the opacity down to about 50% and locked the layer.

The icon grid with one of the sketches inserted into the grid, ready to vector.

From here, I began to apply shape layers to form the basic structure of the camera just by using rectangles, ellipses and the Pen Tool.

The first outlines of the vector drawing of the camera icon.

We can now apply the desired angle by grouping the layers and rotating the group. The goal here is to adjust them until they meet the angles of the original sketch.

The camera icon angled like the original sketch.

I then duplicated the camera 15 times and filled the empty squares that were on the composition. I have now reached the basic template that will serve as my blueprint.

A grid of camera icons, ready for different design treatments to be applied.

I perceive the next phase as a playground for experimentation, where (almost) anything is allowed.

I give myself licence to play with style, testing different variations. It’s the right place to play with varying widths of stroke (or no stroke at all), various colours, textures, shadows, and highlights.

There’s no such thing as too much experimentation.

Multiple versions of the camera icon created in different styles as options to choose from.

Next up, the task is to pick the style that feels unique and fits the purpose and the mood that I want to achieve. It’s also essential to take into consideration that from here, I still have nine icons to create, hence, I need to make sure the style holds some flexibility that will allow me to apply the same visual grammar to the remaining icons.

As I’ve picked the desired style, I can move forward to build the entire icon set. Using the sketches as a reference, I made the basic structure of each icon.

For the sake of assuring that every element is familiar, I started layering them; from there, I attempted to create a crescendo of details.

In terms of colour work, I decided to go with a dual approach. Either by putting it on top of every layer and applying multiply or by putting it below them, but making sure the top layer doesn’t have a fill.

The final result is (hopefully) a cohesive icon set where every piece relates to one another, both in terms of theme and style. I hope you enjoy it as much as I enjoyed creating it.

The finished Travel icon set.

About the creator

Isabel Sousa is an art director, specialising in UI and illustration. She has a love of vibrant visual universes, eye-popping colours and playful characters. She has had the privilege of working with brands such as Dove, Sony Playstation, Nespresso and Samsung.

You can see more of her work on her website, Instagram, Behance and Dribbble.

Artist relations

Charlotte is an illustrator and arts lecturer who is passionate about the creative industries and is now part of our artist relations team. Her interests include mid 20th century inspired design, comic books, board games, movie memorabilia, baking cakes, feminism and yoga. She shares her 1960’s home with her graphic designer husband and her toddler son who likes to hide her iPad. Get in touch with Charlotte if you have work you have made in Affinity apps to share with us, or tag your work with #madeinaffinity in the usual places.

Credits & Footnotes

Icon set is copyright © Isabel Sousa.

Photograph in background of hero banner by Sean O on Unsplash.

Photograph in background of full width image by Shawn Tan on Unsplash.