Interview with Cian Walsh, icon and interface designer

In my quests to find great icons I stumbled upon Afterglow and I was hooked. Cian Walsh, the designer behind this website and its exceptional icons and interfaces is here at Visual Food.

Let's kick it off with a simple question - please introduce yourself.

Hello all, I'm Cian Walsh, an icon and interface designer from Ireland. I might be familiar to some people for the Forum Faces range of Avatars/Icons and to those who use such programs as Docktopus, QuicKeys and Billings. As well as interface work, I blog occasionally at the design site CreativeBits and spend my spare time trying not to get run over cycling on rural country lanes.

How did you start designing icons?

About two years ago I was feeling a bit of creative burnout so I took a year out to go to New Zealand. Working in orchards, living in caravans, that type of thing. After a couple of months of designing absolutely nothing, the creative itch began to rear its head . Given that I had quit my job to travel, I decided to try some areas that had intrigued me, but were outside my former roles. After picking up a Powerbook, I started looking at Icons. I used to work in store design which is essentially the same thing. Guiding people through a process to get them somewhere that seems logical and the only path they could have chosen. In stores you slow people down with soft carpet, speed them up with hard floors and get them thinking they need want a donut with artificial scent. In Icon design you have colour and shape to entice them to move to your whim.

What is your favorite aspect of the design process?

The point at which an element comes together or you see something in a totally different light. It may be 2am and just as you are about to sleep you knock a pixel to the left and you know what you have to do to finish the project. Everything just swims into focus. You have to trust that that moment will always come in a project.

What type of music do you listen to when you design?

Sometimes music can be distracting, but when I'm in the mood for it, some Lyrics Born or Blackalicious hip-hop is very good for lateral word thinking. Soundtrack & World music are another good way of evoking visuals, particularly Lisa Gerrard & Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Sometimes you need a dose of old school Pantera, Faith No More or Kyuss to get some energy into a piece.



What was the toughest icon design job you ever had? What did it entail?

A lot of smaller icons for mobile software are quite tough as every single pixel counts. You can agonize over where to place one pixel of white as you know it effects the entire graphic. While they can be maddening they are also the most rewarding as it's problem solving at it's most basic. Squeezing good metaphors into a 10x10 gif is akin to pouring a large woman into a cocktail dress.

What inspires you?

unpretentious information, something that isn't afraid to be simple and basic. The general public is always the final judge of how good your brochure/website/icon/pastry menu works so everything should be geared towards making their lives easier. Consider how bad structuring of information impedes your normal day. Cluttered bank forms, fuzzy lettering on road-signs, bizarre controls on washing machines (my personal bugbear). If they all had a clear information structure, you wouldn't notice it as it would seem like that was the way it should naturally be. Every studio/designer should hire a grumpy Granny to vet all work. If you can't sell you idea to a short tempered pensioner, then it has no business making it outside the door.

In order for you to consider it "ideal", what features does an icon have to present?

I should glance at it for about half a second, think 'Oh, that's what the program/function does', and go on with what I was doing. No more than two elements in an icon, if at all possible (iTunes, Digital Colour Meter on OS X are good examples). Strong use of shape and a customized version for smaller sizes. For instance in the iPhoto icon, the palm tree in the 16x16 version is flipped in the opposite direction. Legibility wins over consistency sometimes.


What hardware, OS and tools do you use in your daily work?


I use a Powerbook 1ghz with 1GB RAM and OS X 10.4.2. For getting ideas into the computer I use a Canon QV-R51 Camera set to macro mode as an improvised scanner. I occasionally use an Intellimouse with the scroll wheel as an "Expose' button, but a lot of the icons are still designed using just the trackpad. Everything is put through vector shapes & layer styles in Photoshop CS and then squeezed into IconBuilder. A Sony Ericsson K750i is used as a very handy remote control for presentations, DVDs and music.. A Lacie "Louder than War" 160gb Firewire Drive provides the backup.

What advice would you give to aspiring icon designers?

In the immortal works of that shoe company ...."Just Do it".. If you love a band, TV program, company product or small furry animal, start designing icons based around them. Many icon sets are very well made, but with all the personality of a tax form. The best ones produced today are by people who are interested in the actual subject and theme. Many people will say "Do you know what you should do for Icons?". Listen to them, nod patiently and then ignore every single word they've said. Unless of course they're paying the bill ;)
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8:42 PM

Nice interview    



6:38 PM

Great interview, as always...    



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