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The Iconfactory's David Lanham on what it takes to build home screen-worthy icons

The Iconfactory's David Lanham on what it takes to build home screen-worthy icons

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david lanham
david lanham

David Lanham is an illustrator at The Iconfactory, where he designed many of our favorite icons for apps like Twitterific, Acorn, Fantastical, and Coda. His unique style, which combines juicy color palettes with imaginative shapes and creatures, has made him one of the most sought after icon creators today. Lanham took a few minutes to talk The Verge about the art of crafting great icons, the best apps to get stuff done, and what makes Sword and Sworcery so damn good. You can find him on Twitter at @dlanham and on Dribbble here.

What are you doing right now?

It’s mid-day here at home. I’ve been watching/playing with my one-year old daughter this morning in-between working on projects. We had some lunch and now she’s napping, so I’m digging in to get some more work done.

When did you start making art?

Like nearly everyone else, I started drawing as a kid, I think it just never fell out of habit along the way. The computer has always been there too, and when I was about 17 my parents got me a Wacom tablet for Christmas. Shortly after that I started playing with it in Illustrator, and that was the beginning of my vector drawings.


Your work has always struck me as whimsical. Did you color and draw a lot growing up? What mediums were you initially attracted to?

As a kid, I’d carry around a three-ring binder or clipboard with blank printer paper in it that my Dad would refill as needed. I loved drawing battle scenes of my dinosaurs and rockets, and it was always a great way for my imagination to play. Initially, I was all about the crayons and tempera paints but I’ve since learned to handle a few other mediums.

You’ve created some pretty cool stuff for the Iconfactory. What advice would you give to app developers designing an icon for the first time?

"There are so many sizes from giant to microscopic that the icon needs to be able to scale and maintain its message."

Thanks, it’s been quite a learning experience there, but it’s helped with all aspects of my drawing and technical skills. Icon design is really starting to get into the illustration and composition arenas, there are so many sizes from giant to microscopic that the icon needs to be able to scale and maintain its message — all while looking nice. It’s flexible enough that every icon doesn’t need to be an illustrated masterpiece though. Some of the best icons rely on very simple and minimal elements that are put together in a recognizable way. It really comes down to having a strong base knowledge of art and design fundamentals, and then technical knowledge on how and where the icons will be seen, and what the best way to build and optimize the sizes are.

What makes icons so important?

Icons are the face and branding of an app, and they set the tone and give people an idea of what to expect for an app’s purpose, quality and content. For most apps you run across, icons will be the first thing you see (sometimes before the name of the app) and a lot of people make snap judgements for exploring the app further based on how much they connect with that first impression. It’s extremely important to really nail the message and content of the icon if you want the best chance of someone initially checking out your app as well as keeping it on their device (or at least out of a subfolder).

What artists, digital or analog, inform your work the most?

I try to learn something from every piece of art or creative work that I run across, it all ends up brewing in my subconscious until it’s needed later. Between my personal drawings and professional illustrations, I’ve always learned the most over the years from how well figures can be abstracted to their essence in drawings by any of the classical masters to modern artists like Moebius or Geoff Darrow and even watching the films of Miyazaki, Disney and Pixar. There are really too many to name and many more artists that I don’t even know their names.

What are your favorite art blogs to check out every day?

Some of my favorite daily stops (besides random Pinterest collections lately) have been: Naimoka, Pasa La Vida, Drawn, Lovely Package, Little Big Details, and Dribbble.

You once blogged that Sword and Sworcery was one of your favorite titles on iOS. What makes it so good?

"I'd love to have more drawn out stories and adventures that I could play over the course of weeks or months."

It was just oozing with style and told a really fantastic story as well. I greatly miss games that have a definitive and well written story like you find on consoles and desktops. Casual and quick games are always great, but I’d love to have more drawn out stories and adventures that I could play over the course of weeks or months. It’s like sitting down with a good novel after reading news articles during the day, it makes for a nice change in mindset and experience.

I love the creatures you draw. Is there one you’re particularly emotionally connected to?

They’re really all like kids and to me (and my sketchbook is like my diary), but I’ve always really loved and felt sorry for Spacedoggy. He just wants his bone, but he’ll never get it because he’s got a helmet on. A lot of my drawings tend to have a bit of that dark humor to them.

On your About page, you list many of your friends in the community. What role do those people play in your life?

They provide support, inspiration and keep me in check when I’ve missed the mark or need some suggestions. I make a ton of revisions when I’m working on things — sometimes just bad decisions, sometimes over-thinking a problem too much. It’s so fantastic to have a good group of friends to bounce ideas off of to really get to the core of a problem.

Do you sketch on paper to start, or is your process entirely digital?

It varies wildly depending on where I’m at and what I’m creating concepts for. I will, however, generally start with pen paper to sketch and if there are some promising directions there, I’ll take it digital and sketch in Photoshop where there’s more flexibility for erasing, pushing, splashes of color and the glorious undo button.


What tools and apps do you use to work every day?

Most of my day is spent in Photoshop with a Wacom tablet. I don’t really use a mouse anymore and instead rely on the pen input and trackpad (mostly for scrolling or when I lose my pen) to get around. My personal drawings are done in Illustrator and there’s a multitude of accessory and background apps running for special tasks. Messages, Safari, iTunes, Mail and Dropbox are the essentials, with Alfred, Versions, Twitteriffic, Slicy, Icon Slate, Candybar, Coda, ImageOptim, Image Capture, xScope and even some Xcode for when I need to do some special tasks.

What music helps you work best? Or no music?

I’ve been gathering a good bit of ambient and classical music for when I’m working, with a few more fun playlists for work or drawings that don’t need as much concentration. If I’m brainstorming or really critical thinking then all the music has to stop (sometimes I just wear my noise-cancelling headphones with nothing playing or take a shower where the ambient water drowns out distractions).

Will we see a Lanham-designed creature in a Pixar movie some day?

Please, yes. Visiting Pixar was a treat when I was in California a few years ago, and I’d absolutely love to see something I’ve created in one of their movies. I’ve always loved animation and I’ve even been dabbling in some for an upcoming game and some side projects, so I’m sure there will be something I’ve animated one day, Pixar or not.

What’s your favorite way to kick back and relax?

Just observing life around me, or walking through the woods or a park or even just getting outside recharges my batteries and makes me really appreciate everything that’s around us. There are so many little details that are never noticed until you really start looking, and relaxing is essential to appreciating those details even more.

Illustration credit: David Lanham