careers / creative juice / personalities

Mike LaJoie: an iconic career in icons

Allovus has a reputation for its high quality, experienced icon designers. And Mike LaJoie embodies both of those adjectives. He is the ultimate professional when it comes to icon design, managing icon teams and systems, and keeping his eye on the entire icon creation process.

We sat down with Mike to learn more about his life in the icon industry.

Allovus:  How and when did you get into icon design?

Mike:  My first “real” job specifically designing icons was for Windows Vista in 2005. By that point though, I had been designing for close to 10 years and always had an affinity for icons, whether it was for a catalog or website or just replacing icons on my home computer. I started out as a graphic designer in Southern California, designing stickers for a record store, skateboard company—magazine ads, print, designing shoes and clothing. Even back then, I had a penchant for designing icons.

Allovus:  You’ve worked on icons for Windows Vista, Windows Server 2012, Microsoft Automotive, Windows 10, and Emoji icon fonts. Do you have a favorite style or method of production?

Mike:  Not especially, although I do like drawing icons that I helped define the style itself. Windows 10 File Explorer style and Fluent App style being a couple of them.

Fluent App Icons

Allovus:  What are the most notable icon projects you’ve worked on?

Mike:  The Fluent App icons are the most recent. I was a key part of the evolution of the style when it went from 10 icons to 100. We had to define a color palette and scaling grid, among other things. I personally was the lead designer for the new Edge icon. It was many months of iteration, review, and research. I did collaborate with other designers on the shape itself, but the look and feel of it was my own. Another would be the monoline icons for Windows 10 called MDL2 (which I named). I wasn’t as much a designer on those as I was font tech, but the changes we made in partnership with engineering in the icon font were significant to producing and implementing quality icons. I designed a system that enabled us to be pixel-perfect from design to code, as long as the right size was used.

MDL2 Icons

Allovus:  What are some of the more difficult challenges you faced when designing icons?

Mike:  Windows 10 File Explorer was particularly challenging because we had under 4 months to define the style, draw, and produce everything. It was just me and David Hose (Project Manager and Designer) with the help of a few off-site contractors. David and I created the stylistic definitions and a style guide so others could quickly help. That was a good working partnership!

Windows 10 File Explorer Icons

Allovus:  Talk to us about some of the speaking engagements you’ve had regarding icons.

Mike:  In 2016, the Windows icon team did a workshop at TypeCon (Seattle), which is a typography conference. Since the MDL2 Windows icons are delivered in a font, we provided a hands-on demo on how to draw and produce MDL2 icons. I gave a little sneak peek into the redesign and production of the new emoji style which was based in the same design language. In 2017, my lead and I presented on the main stage at TypeCon (in Boston) on “Deconstructing the construction of the Microsoft Emoji font”. We walked through the design and how it evolved using the color font technology. We showed how we designed a production workflow and how we utilized the font technology to do things with emoji skin tones that no one else was doing at the time.

TypeCon 2017. Photo credit: Ben Truelove

Allovus:  What is the most satisfying part of the icon-making process for you? Do you have a least favorite part of the work? If so, what is it?

Mike:  My favorite part is seeing what I’ve designed out in the wild and knowing what I do is impacting a TON of people, hopefully for the better. It’s incredibly humbling, but at the same time, I’m very proud of the work. My least favorite part? Drawing 10-15 different sizes of the same thing and sometimes having to produce over 200 assets of it. Making fonts can be quite tedious as well, especially when something doesn’t work right.

Allovus:  Do you have any words of wisdom for designers interested in getting into icon work?

Mike:  Sweat the details. Don’t settle for okay. Icons can last a very long time. Also, you’re helping people navigate through whatever task it is they are doing. If the road signs aren’t clear, people get lost. Consider how the metaphor, the accessibility, and the usability of every icon affects someone. You have to be empathetic to the user. It’s so much more than just “drawing little pictures”.

Learn more about Mike LaJoie and his impact on the icon industry:

Designing for Peace of Mind

Inside the Microsoft Emoji Design Studio

The Icon Kaleidoscope

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