I had quite a bit of fun on Tuesday. I decided to take on a challenge, and put myself in the shoes of an icon designer in 1984. I created a set of 5 retro-inspired icons based on things you'd find on a modern computer. The style itself is very much based upon the work of Susan Kare, the Happy iMac being especially evocative of her original Happy Mac design.
The goal was to create these icons using the limitations that existed on the old monochrome Macs. That meant I only had 32x32 pixels, and 2 colors (black & white) to work with. Pretty much nothing compared the relatively enormous canvas and limitless color choices we have at our disposal today.
This is a fantastic exercise for learning how to make concise iconography. You have to carefully consider every single pixel that goes into the design. You have to be ruthless about leaving out what's not 100% needed. These icons aren't about creating gorgeous art, they're about communicating an idea in the simplest form you can. I think that's a lesson we can take with us when we're designing for today's world.
I really encourage you to play around and experiment with limitations like these. The Macintosh is probably among the simplest you'll find in terms of icon limitations, but see what others you can find. Doing the research can be a lot of work as well, but depending on what you find you could learn a lot more than just the maximum specs. When searching for the original Macintosh icon dimensions I came across a lot of interesting information that I didn't know, despite being a fan of Susan Kare's work.
You may not come up with the prettiest results, but that's not the point. The point is learning about the constraints and discovering the thought processes designers used to get around them.
There are many ways to actually going about doing "pixel art" icons. I used Sketch by drawing squares, you can also use the same technique in other vector applications like Illustrator. You can also use a 1x1 pixel brush in Photoshop. Another solution for Mac users is an App called Pixen, which is designed specifically for this kind of work.