Your side project eventually became your full-time job. How did side projects help you become a better designer?
As my side project became my only source of income, I had to become a ‘pragmatic designer’, and focus on profitability over artistic pleasure.
Having a side project put me, the designer, in the customer’s shoes. I focus on using design to make my business profitable: convert visitors to users, make users so happy that they become customers. It’s less art for the art’s sake than when I was a freelancer. I prefer to ship quickly over procrastinating because a design is not good enough.
A side project puts constraints on designers that help them to better understand their customer or project manager mindset, thus creating better projects with them.
Check out Vincent’s work at Streamline HQ.
What’s one thing you would change about your career if you could do it over again?
I would start earlier a side project, move to a country with a lower cost of living, so I can spend more time on this side project and work less for customers. I moved in 2008 from France to Asia, but I should have done it earlier.
By moving to Asia, I reached a better quality of life, while spending 4 times less than in France.
What makes your feel energized when working?
Coffee + a good DJ’s mix 😎
How can designers improve at understanding, using, and designing iconography?
See iconography as signs on a highway or in an airport. Like on a highway, app users or websites visitors are so busy or distracted that they cannot waste one second and must decide quickly.
Icons help people to browse or work more efficiently. In a split second, they can recognize information or navigation items.
Consequently, what’s most important about icons is not beauty or creativity, it’s all about legibility, consistency, and recognition of a concept symbolized by the icon.
If you are too creative, it can hurt legibility. Icon design is about restraint. You often start with a creative approach, but you will end up in more conservative designs, as legibility and consistency are more important than style.
I see a parallel with typography (where typeface harmony is more important than an individual character design). If an icon looks good but doesn’t fit with the style of the whole set, it breaks the consistency. You’ll be shocked by how much time we spend finalizing an icon set, roughly 75% of the time is about comparing icons and tweaking them endlessly. We are actually still improving some ‘Streamline’ sets that we started 10 years ago and went to 4 major versions.
Figma changed the way we design as a team. Previously, we were working on Illustrator files, stored on Dropbox to share within the team. It was a mess, and it was hard to collaborate on the same project.
Figma is not as good as Illustrator for icon design (yet…), but the benefits of working collaboratively outpaced the features we miss from Illustrator. We are currently working on a full ‘icon system’ that wouldn’t be possible without this capacity of collaborating with a team of 8 icon designers.
How do you go about getting feedback on your design work?
I use Twitter a lot and ask followers what they think about our new projects.
For people like me who work isolated from home, Twitter is a great way to emulate an office environment, where you would turn to your colleague and ask for feedback.
As of a few weeks ago, we also use Mixpanel data to measure what icons styles our Streamline users download the most. Before that, we had no idea what people were really using! Since we got this data, we’ve stopped some icons and illustrations sets after realizing that almost nobody uses them, and restarted some projects because we saw a high usage by our customers.
How do you decide when you need to do user research?
I didn’t do user research for many years, because I didn’t have enough time. I was wrong and decided too much with my instinct and own style preferences. We’ve wasted time, working for months on sets that our Mixpanel data shows are barely used.
We now rely on three sources to better know our user’s needs:
- Interviews of users, asking them what themes/styles they use, or which ones we should work on.
- Data from Mixpanel: what sets people use the most, what search terms are not fulfilled, etc.
- Feedback from Twitter or Instagram, we publish early on samples of new sets we work on and observe the feedback.
Where in the design process do you feel most comfortable? Why there?
I Iove starting a project and sketching icons on my Muji notepad. Everything is possible, I love being in a creative flow with no constraints. Finalizing a set is draining, but starting one is so fun!
Do you think it’s better to be a jack of all trades or master of one?
If you want to become an entrepreneur or a founder: be a jack of all trades.
When you start a business or startup, you don’t have enough money to pay for all the skills needed (design, marketing, development, customer support…). You must do everything yourself until you can hire talents when you become profitable. I’ve hired my first customer support representative last year. For 10 years I was doing the support myself.
If you want to be employed: be a master of one. Become extremely specialized and skilled in a domain that will make you highly desirable. You will get hired by the best startups, you can join the best team and projects.
Thanks for chatting, Vincent!