Speaker Spotlight: Michael Flarup on Designing Better App Icons

By Oliver Lindberg13 Mar 2018Interviews

Designer and entrepreneur Michael Flarup will be speaking at Pixel Pioneers Bristol in June. Here he tells us why icon design is crucial, how to design for augmented reality, how he manages to juggle so many different projects, and more

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Why’s icon design so important?
Icons, particularly app icons in today's applications for mobile and desktop, are the first and most important visual aspect of a product that the user interacts with. It’s what everyone will think of when they think of your product. 

Most people will have some sort of relationship with your icon. They organise their homescreen accordingly or somehow interact with it every time they use your product or service. I can think of no other aspect of the design that so singlehandedly plays a major role in the perception and relationship with a product. But furthermore icon design is essentially design — distilled. 

Most of the qualities that make good icon design are universally applicable to every design discipline out there so by mastering something as specific as icon design, you’re training almost all aspects of good design, namely working to create great results under constraints, making something that is recognisable, scalable and appealing.

What’s the first step to creating a great app icon? 
I enjoy sketching out various ideas by hand and once I come across a few concepts that I like, I bring them into Photoshop or Illustrator for them to be vectorised and continue work from there. But almost all of my icons start with pen and paper because it’s cheap in terms of effort and time and allows me to more freely explore whacky ideas without any of them feeling like a commitment.

An in progress shot of tracing shapes from Michael's sketchbook which turned into this app icon for podcast player Castamatic:

You’ve recently created your first augmented reality experience. What have you learned from it? 
We learned that most of what we thought about augmented reality was wrong. AR isn’t something that is easily applicable after the fact. You need to design specifically for it. One of the biggest challenges of designing for AR is the inability of the designers to control the camera. So much of regular entertainment relies on the creators being able to show players where and when to look. This type of orchestrated storytelling is almost impossible when the player has the freedom to control the ‘viewfinder’ of the world. It has massive ramifications for how we communicate in-game events and interfaces.

What tools can't you live without and why? 
Photoshop. I have been using Photoshop for more than 15 years and despite being involved in many different disciplines I still spend many hours in Photoshop each day.

How do you juggle client work, your own products and various pet projects? How do you stay so productive, and what part of your work do you enjoy most? 
To answer all of that I’d probably have to write a small book. But to summarise: I like to keep a very diverse schedule, changing my focus between various initiatives. I work with some incredibly talented people and I keep a simple completable todo list every day with just a few tasks. Three to four things at most, usually one bigger thing and a few smaller things. All of them as defined as possible as to avoid any vagueness or obstacle in doing them. Productivity isn’t really a sprint, but more a long marathon.

A guiding light of my career has been a childlike pursuit of creative work that I genuinely think is fun. It sounds so obvious, but you’d be surprised by how many people don’t do this. We become what we work on, and when we work on something we’re consequently presented with more opportunities of that nature. It catches us in a loop that either reinforces the things we truly want to do or brings us further from them. 

How did you get into the industry, and to where you are now? 
I got into the industry in the old days of the early web by making digital art, forum signatures, wallpapers, icon replacements and just about anything I could produce on my computer. It’s been a pretty long road to where I am today. I’ll share some of that road in my talk at Pixel Pioneers.

My time is currently divided between three main jobs and a few smaller side projects. First, I run my entertainment design studio Northplay. This is where I spend most of my hours working with my really talented team on games and entertainment products for ourselves and for clients. I then run Pixelresort. I have been making things for people around the world through Pixelresort for more than 10 years now, and it’s my retreat as a visual designer where I get to work on icons, logos, and UI. Finally, I work on my growing design resource platform, Apply Pixels. Here I offer industry standard design tools in the form of downloadable icon and UI templates. My normal days are usually a mix of those three initiatives.

A few side projects are sprinkled on top of those. I run the co-working space Spilhuset in Copenhagen, and I spend an increasing amount of time on traveling giving talks, writing, and making videos on YouTube.

What are you currently working on? 
True to form, I’m currently juggling a few different projects: working on a new game with Northplay (can’t share that yet but come find me at Pixel Pioneers and I’ll show some stuff). Working for a few interesting clients and playing around with a few side projects like the Adobe Creative Cloud replacement icon set. Here's the Photoshop icon:

Flarup Cloud Icon

What can people expect to take away from your talk at Pixel Pioneers Bristol
First and foremost we’re going to have fun. The type of talks I enjoy the most are the ones that have personality and share stories and laughs. I don’t want to give a talk that can easily be distilled in a blog post.

In the talk I’ll be sharing my own journey on how I became a designer and some of the lessons I have learned along the way. I have found that it works as a great key to conversations around career paths, life goals and happiness and we’re going to spend some time on why you need to be doing what you think is fun. I’ll also be sharing a lot of embarrassing old work and pictures of me in a turtle costume.

But above all, I’m looking forward to some facetime with other creative people. We have a job that for most of us, consist of staring into a screen for eight hours a day, so I cherish the moments when I get to make new friends and talk about what we do off screen.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received? 
I think the old “you do you” saying is something I have repeatedly gone back to. In this day and age it’s easy to get enamoured by what we ought to be, what we ought to work on and where we should be heading. But the truth is that we, more than any other generation before us, have the power to control those things and forge our own careers.

Apart from Michael's talk, Pixel Pioneers Bristol also features a workshop on psychology for UX and product design, run by Joe Leech, as well as seven other talks from the likes of Ida Aalen, Heydon Pickering, and Sarah Richards. Topics covered include user testing, inclusive design, perceived performance, variable fonts, and more.