Oct 3, 2023
What Clients Want in an Icon Designer
If you don’t have a lot of icon design experience, then getting clients is a bit of a “cart before the horse” situation. In order to find and win clients, you need to prove to your potential clients that you are capable of handling their project and that you are a great partner to work with. There are 3 main attributes potential clients are looking for, usually in this order: you are experienced, collaborative, and adaptable. Let’s explore a bit what that looks like when you are interacting with a potential client.
The first thing a potential client will do is research you. They want to know if you are capable of handling their project, which is why a website that showcases your best work is crucial. A user-friendly (and mobile-friendly) portfolio that immediately shows a variety of excellent icon work will prove to your client that their project is within your ability. They want to learn just enough about your experience to justify calling you to learn more about your work. On the first call, they’ll likely ask you to talk through a project so you can elaborate on your process and workflow. So a good portfolio is how you get the foot in the door.
Clients want to know if you can design in a variety of styles as well as designing at scale, carrying a style across a large number of concepts. You should have at least 3 examples of icon styles to show, but ideally you’ll want to show as many as 12 different styles so they can see the diversity of work you can do. If possible, show at least one set that is 50 or more concepts so you can prove you can work at scale. Show a lot of variety, but only show your best work. A client will always judge based on the worst thing in your portfolio, so it’s better to cut your bad work and show less than show more and reveal work you’re not proud of. If you don’t have much work to show, you’ll need to create some icons on your own and compile it into an online portfolio before you’ll be able to win clients.
I highly recommend including a case study that explains your thought process in creating an icon set. Potential clients like to see how you problem solve, so a case study is a great way to inform them how you solved a similar client’s problem. This will help build credibility that you’ll be able to do the same for their project.
Next, the client will want to know if you can interact well with other groups in the organization, like developers, design leaders, or other designers. They may ask directly if you’ve worked cross-functionally with those groups. Of course you should answer honestly, but if you haven’t worked with those teams before, you can still demonstrate to the client you are great with those teams by asking questions that prove you are thinking about those teams’ needs. It’s much more important to the client that you are asking the right questions. Knowing how to meet the needs of all the tertiary teams reveals that you are knowledgeable about the whole icon design process, beginning to end. So what are those different groups looking for? Let’s talk about that.
Designers are the people who will be creating the user experience of the product and working out which icons to use in certain scenarios. This group includes user experience architects, user interface designers, product designers, or some combination of them. This group is very design focused, so they’ll want to know how your icons match the design, tone, and feeling of the organization’s brand. To confidently speak to this group, have great reasoning about the stylistic choices for your icons. Explain why you made the stroke widths 2px, rounded the corner radiuses, used flat end-caps, or any other stylistic motifs that are threaded through your work. In addition, know how to handoff the icons to the designers. They‘ll be ogling your new beautiful icons and dying to start using them, so familiarize yourself with component libraries in Figma so you can make sure there’s a smooth handoff.
Developers are the ones who will be installing the assets you export. They may also be referred to as software engineers. To be on the good side of developers, streamline their process by exporting clean vector files, optimizing your icon assets, and naming your icons with a consistent format. Developers don’t care much about what your icons look like, as long as the assets work in predictable ways. This is where it pays off to be very organized and consistent in your design process. Developers will want clean vector paths that don’t include extra unnecessary points. To ensure this, duplicate your artwork to a separate page, unionize the icon paths so each icon is a single shape, then clean up any messy paths. Developers will also be impressed if your icons are optimized, meaning small file sizes and clean code without any extra junk. Use plugins that optimize your vectors like SVG Export, then double check the SVG code in TextEdit to guarantee they are exporting correctly. Lastly, check in with the your client on what their preferred naming format is. Most developer teams prefer “kebab-case” or “snake_case”, but your client may have a different preference, so it’s always worthwhile to ask.
Design Leaders are the ultimate decision makers on the icon sets. You may not always interact with them since you’ll primarily be working with a design systems designer. But in case you do, make sure you can clearly explain how your icons will improve the product. Essentially, prove to the design leader how your icons reduce friction. They will want to know why updating the icon system is a good investment, so know how to correlate your choices with improving customer experience. This usually comes down to good stylistic choices make the product more enjoyable to use, and good conceptual choices make the product easier to use. If you can showcase specific examples to back your claim, the design leader can report what you say to their own leaders. Make it easy for the design leader to explain why your work is valuable.
Once you show the client that you can satisfy the requirements of these different groups and you have the experience to handle it easily, they’ll be more likely to trust bringing you into their process. And that leads us to the last attribute…
Once the client is convinced that you’re a good fit for the project, they’ll want to make sure you’re a good fit for their team and easy to work with. At several points throughout the project, you’ll need client feedback, so make sure there’s adequate time and space for them to share their insights and for you to respond to their feedback. So your responsibility is to integrate with their preferred method of communication and respond to their critiques promptly.
Each team will have different preferences on how to share feedback, so set communication expectations early with the client. If your client is based in a distant time zone or doesn’t like live calls, suggest using asynchronous communication like email with screenshots or a Figma file with comments, where you provide large chunks at a time for them to review. If the client prefers a more hands-on, real-time approach, then give regular updates through a Slack or Discord channel or schedule video calls with screen sharing. Regardless of what you choose, make sure your client feels empowered to provide the most transparent feedback they can.
In addition to matching your clients’ communication rhythm, remember that your client is the expert on the product, so their feedback is crucial to the success of your icon set. Respond to their feedback and critiques quickly, and tag them when changes have been made. Keep them in the loop as much as you can. But if you disagree with a critique, know that you also have valuable expertise. So trust your gut, and don’t be afraid to share your thoughts if you differ from the client. Just be sure you do so politely, and can justify why you disagree.
So in summary, clients want to know you are experienced, collaborative, and adaptable. If you can convince a client that you are these 3 things, and your rate is within their budget, then you will be a top contender in winning their business.
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