Why on earth did I become an icon designer again?

As an independent designer, for some reason, I've surrounded myself with the same kind of people; designers, entrepreneurs, product developers, marketeers, some more designers...


Independent people take care of themselves. To be able to earn a decent meal, pay the bills and go on vacation every now and then we have to be able to sell ourselves to our potential clients. We all have 30 second elevator pitches memorized and carefully over-optimized our LinkedIn profiles. We go to networking events and have business cards printed which we never use anymore. 

I must admit straight off the bat I never go to these networking events and I never got around to come up with a sufficient elevator pitch either. Am I missing out?

For some reason quite a few people I have encountered lately are trying to re-invent themselves. Just to find a way to stand out from the crowd. They do a little soul searching and they’re hoping to find something unique that will give them an edge. Something they will be remembered for when pitching themselves and which they can use as their main marketing message.

Somehow all these people are losing sleep over the same question. The question I'm referring to is: Why? Or, as marketeers would say: The why.

What is THE why?

It seems like a silly question to begin with. What gets you out of bed every morning? What floats your boat? Or in Why Guru Simon Sinek’s words: What is your purpose, cause, or belief that inspires you to do what you do?

Answering this, at first glance simple question, should be the holy grail to entrepreneurial success. When you are able to answer this particular question, all your worries will disappear.

You will be able to fulfill all of your ambitions and great wealth awaits you at the end of the rainbow.

So I figured what the heck and asked myself the very same question: Why? 

Why did I become an icon designer? Why do I design icons?

I really think these are legitimate questions, especially after all these years at Dutchicon. 

Why did I start?

That’s easy. I’ve always been fascinated by simple form and wanted to create an extensive pictogram or icon collection, just like the ones on traffic signs or airport signage for instance. Functional design at its best.

But noone ever commissioned me to do such a task and in the pre-iStockphoto era you couldn’t make any money online with it yet.

Not long after Apple introduced the first iPhone, containing all those pretty little icons, I created my first icon set, which later became the Raw collection. I discovered that I even could earn some extra cash when I would upload these little gems to iStockphoto. 'Some extra cash’ became yearly salaries and a full-time job doing the thing I loved to do most: icon design. 

So why do I design icons?

or why do I STILL design icons? I do wonder about that question once in a while, to be honest. When I started out, there were hardly any good examples of how to design a plate of spaghetti or a nurse for instance. The goal for me was easy: design the best plate of spaghetti or nurse icon you have ever seen. Although it took me quite a few hours to design such an icon, it made me feel proud to have created something new. I felt like a pioneer, discovering new ground every day.

These days I guess most icon subjects are done already. It doesn’t help that new icon designers start out every day. Most of them doing the same thing, copying each other over and over again. Quite a few of them spend 15 minutes on drawing almost the same icon that I have spent hours on to come up with the idea, sketch a few options by hand, and create a highly consistent vector design in my beloved Raw style. These copycats sell their carbon copy of my work as their own on these numerous contributor sites, which pop up like mushrooms from the ground.


A couple of years ago my focus shifted more and more from online sales to custom icon projects for clients. Together with one of my best buddies Rogier Rosema of Things to Make and Do, I self-initiated and created the Dutch Government Icon Collection. A library of icons that can be used by all ministries and departments of the Dutch Government (Rijksoverheid). We custom designed a complete icon style with unique and distinctive design features, which made the style really recognizable as the Dutch Government icon style. 

For Transavia Airlines I did a similar project. Creating hundreds of icons in a new, simple but refined style. I realized that the thing that inspired me the most was the journey of discovering and learning how an icon style would develop into a large consistent icon collection. Just like my discoveries and lessons learned at iStockphoto when I created the Raw collection.

But when a marketing guru asks me the Why question, I draw a blank. I panic and I don’t know what to say. It’s just not as easy as you might think.

What is my why?

The fact that I work to earn money so I will be able to provide for my family doesn’t seem to be the right answer. This is something a criminal could say to a judge as well: “Sorry I robbed that old lady, judge, but I had to provide for my family…”. 

It needs more grandeur, a goal for the greater good. Something you couldn't possible disagree with. Something which transforms egocentric gold diggers into worldly benefactors.

It has to be something like: I recycle plastic because I think the environment is very important. Or we build houses because we believe that everyone should be able to have a roof over his head.

Perhaps more like Facebook, they really want to connect people. Seems like a good thing, right? To be the facilitator in helping people out to connect to each other. We just couldn't do such a thing without Facebook anymore.

I did some more research to find out how other companies tackle this Why issue. I will not mention any more names, but you come across stuff like: We truly believe in helping brands achieving their goals by helping the people they care about”. Wow, that really sounds inspiring... What a load of crap. It's just another way of saying: “Hire us to sell more to your customers." 

It’s a lot like that elevator pitch, it isn’t about me at all, it’s about what you can offer to your clients. What’s in it for them? What can I say that sounds passionate and is not about making money at all? Although it is… is it?

A little brainstorm

In my quest to come up with the right answer to the question mentioned before, I've tried some of these tactics myself:

- I think everyone should have the ability to have access to a better looking internet; or:

- I truly believe that icon design will make the world a better place; I really do.

- Great icon design will save our planet; 

- You gotta fight for your right to good icon design;

 Although all these statements just might be true, it still feels a bit over the top though.

Why can't I just say I am an icon designer BECAUSE it pays the bills. Or because I'm obsessed by simplifying things and it makes me happy. Because I think there is already too much mediocre crap out there and I should do something about it. Perhaps just because I'm freaking good at it and it is fun to create and discover new things.

Who really cares?

To me there seem to be reasons enough for why I do what I do. Maybe not compressed into a slick elevator pitch, but I’m convinced that when people see my work, the work will speak for itself. Now I come to think of it, in art school and during my career this has always been an issue. Although I had solid ideas and designs, I always felt insecure about presenting my work verbally in front of a group of people. To make up for that I just had to walk that extra mile to make sure the work was outstanding. All the rest would be forgiven.

This is exactly the way I’ve been doing my craft for years. Thankfully, these days I rarely have to defend my work in front of a group of critics or self-acclaimed experts of some kind. 

Next time when I’m in an elevator, standing next to a guru, I will know exactly what to say. Next time when someone asks me that ridiculous why question, I will say: “Why the hell not BITCH? Just check out my website.”

Even I know that’s probably not the right way to start off a healthy relationship with a potential client, but people will remember you for sure and they might even think you must be authentic.


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