I was approached by a colleague from Atlanta about creating a family of icons for the most respected retail design firm in the Southeast, Miller Zell.

The project entailed creating icons to represent the three key divisions within the company: Design, @Scale, and Production. Design is fairly straightforward conceptually, which by every measure made this icon the most challenging of the group. @Scale is the department that "roll’s out all their design to retrofit all the different retail environments of a given brand they are representing." And Production is responsible for producing all the materials and building out the spaces the agency creates for their clients. 

My job was to create a family of icons that worked in complete harmony with their brand redesign and satisfied the core characteristics of the individual divisions. No small challenge given many of the keywords that were used to describe those core characteristics were, at best, amorphous. 

Making this even more difficult, was the simplicity of their new logo design. The attached sample sales sheet shows their new logo and how they envisioned using this new family of icons. In addition, the icons had to be readable in one and two-colors and match the style of the logo.

Shaking Out The Chaff

Brain dump sketches

As with any branding project, the first step is to brainstorm ideas in an effort to flush out the detritus. A basic search for "design", "scale", or "production" will lead to hundreds, if not thousands, of standard icons sold by any number of online stock warehouses. There is literally no visual reference to "design" that has not been created. Light bulbs, pencils, pens, protractors, rulers ... You name it, it's been done a thousand times over. 

The icons they had been using to represent these three devisions for the past decade included a light bulb for Design, a gear for @Scale, and a printer's mark with CMYK for Production. In my head, I'd thrown these concepts out the window, but I knew that letting go of the most obvious solutions would be far more difficult for the team at MZ than it would be for me. 

My first round of sketching started with these three ubiquitous visual solutions, then grew to include every other obvious solution I could think of before honing in on a more creative solution. 

Cleaning up this initial round in Illustrator yielded a couple interesting twists for the lightbulb and @Scale that helped set the seeds for the final concept and designs. 

The Concept Crystalizes

I wanted to avoid all obvious visual references. This proved quite challenging and the only way to satisfy my goal was to push the solution in a purely conceptual direction. The three divisions: Design, @Scale, and Production represent more than individual working groups at Miller Zell, they represent a process. The process begins with Design, is built by @Scale, and is supported by Production. No single division can satisfy the final product without the other. I hit upon the idea of process to link each department together visually. And my solution was a "box". Not a light bulb, not a scale, and not a rendered store display. A simple box. And that box would tell the story of their internal process.

I wound up creating three different sets of icons each representing a distinct visual direction, spanning the gamut from purely conceptual, to safe, and, finally, to obvious. 

As I suspected, based on the initial review, the strongest solution was the least popular with the team. I explained the rationale behind my design decisions in detail for each concept and left the decision in their hands. 

Initially, they decided to go with Concept 3 and wanted to explore additional ideas for how to visually portray "design". There is simply no exciting "new" way to portray any standard iconic representation of design or scale or production. I mentioned that their decision to go with the most obvious solution didn't follow their own criteria for what they hoped to achieve with these icons when I was asked to consider taking on the project. Ironically, they were stuck in the box I was hired to think outside of. 

Regardless, while they talked through the designs amongst themselves, I resigned myself to taking another look at Concept 3 in an attempt to figure out a way to make something obvious new-ish.

A week passed and I finally received word that the team had reversed their decision. They decided, much to my joy and amazement, to select Concept 1 as the final direction for the icons. In the end, the story telling approach won the day because they appreciated my efforts to explain my thought processes behind each approach. Moral of the story: Defend your design decisions. 

I wound up making a few minor adjustments to the icon designs based on their feedback. 

Final icons with color and display progressions

Final Designs

The Miller Zell Icon Family