One of the best pieces of advice for icon designers is to practice every day if you want to keep getting better at your craft. As you know, “practice makes perfect”. Okay, there really is no such thing as perfect, a better saying would be “practice makes you better”. But what does it mean to practice? What exactly should you be doing to hone your skills? The simple answer is “make lots of icons”, but that’s not putting it in the most helpful of terms.
Always Have a Project
The hardest part of regular practice is consistency. If you’re without specific goals it will be harder to actually make yourself practice. You should be doing projects with specific goals and deadlines in mind to keep yourself motivated. I’m not talking about client projects, paid or pro bono. I’m talking about defining your own project, from start to finish.
With personal projects you have the freedom to make mistakes, and while you should stick to your deadlines you have the breathing room to push them back if something else comes up. Also, since you’re defining the project you can cater to the specific skills you want to work on.
It can be easy to focus on styles and ideas that feel safe, I readily admit I struggle with that myself. Playing it safe and not challenging yourself with new concepts will make you better at the kind of work that you’re comfortable with but your skillset won’t grow. There’s only so far you can go if you don’t take on new challenges.
What I like to do is make a list of things I’m not very comfortable with right now. Everything from subject matter like food and animals, to styles like perspective. In an ideal world I would take the time every day to pick something from the list and search Dribbble or Iconfinder for examples to work off of. I think it’s okay to copy if (and this is a huge ‘if’) you’re not going to publish the work, and you’re not simply copying but analyzing every path you draw and figuring out how they all fit together enough to make an original piece.
You’re going to make work that you’re very unhappy with, and it’s going to be frustrating. That’s just the truth of any creative field. It can get to the point where you just want to throw up your arms and give up, but as much as you will hate the feeling it has an overall positive effect. Imagine if you were always happy with everything you did. Would you have any incentive to improve? Probably not.
Instead of letting your frustration and dissatisfaction bring you down, use it to motivate yourself to keep working at it. Instead of looking at unsatisfying work as a failure, you have to look at it as a learning experience. Look at your work and identify its specific flaws, write those down if it helps, and pay special attention to those areas with your next practice project. It’s also good to share this work with a small handful of friends in the field who you trust to be honest. I guarantee they will be less harsh on your work than you are, and will be able to provide a more objective analysis.