Most designers are generalists, making small and large designs across various mediums—logos, business cards, brochures, letterhead, posters, signage, websites, apps, etc. You name it, a designer can do it. Getting to make so many different things for so many different platforms is one of the best parts of the job. But there’s something to be said for doing one thing and doing that one thing well. The duo behind Portland-based design studio Parakeet, have done just that, carving out a niche by making the little things that companies need. Those little things are mostly icons, but also include logos, emojis, and stickers for apps and messaging.
Alexa Grafera and Louie Mantia began formally working together in 2015, and their Portland, Ore., studio has been going strong ever since. Clients include the likes of Target and Nike, among other high-profile brands. Although the icons Grafera and Mantia design might be small-scale, the two have made a big impact in the design world.
Target Bullseye emoji included in the Target iMessage app that accompanies the iOS Target app
Icons for Nike
Carving Out a Niche
Their road to becoming icon designers started early in their lives. Mantia got his first Mac around 2004 to 2005 and he fell in love with the idea of creating his own icons to customize the Finder, folders and user interface. So he did just that, and in the process taught himself Photoshop. Grafera has always loved drawing, and during her early career as a designer, she worked as a generalist doing UI and icon designs. She also used Photoshop very early on, as far back as version 5.5.
The Parakeet Primaries Stock Icon Pack
Having worked with Photoshop for so long, Grafera has become proficient at creating custom designs from scratch. She defines her approach to icon design as less about photorealism and more about illustration, creating what she calls an idealized look and feel using multiple visual resources. She collects a lot of reference images of whatever subject she’s drawing and finds commonalities among images. From there, she assesses what things are essential to communicate that object. If it’s not essential, it’s left out. She sees this as especially important when making small design objects. Designer Clint Schultz, who is familiar with their work, appreciates the approach they take. “What they are doing is very difficult, but they are brilliant, balancing the minimal or maximum information that is needed to translate the design to a large audience.” With icon design, what you leave out is just as important—or more important—than what you leave in. “You have to find the essentials,” says Grafera.
Perfecting the Form
Over time, Photoshop was an essential tool for this work, but apps have come a long way since, and these days she uses Procreate as her tool of choice. Grafera starts on an iPad Pro and then moves to an iMac for clean-up, refinement, and finishing. But Procreate works just as well for sketching ideas early on. For Mantia, his own style is an approach that focuses on shapes, boiling it down to the positive and negative, the form and counterform.
Icons for the Magic Passport app
In many cases, the work Mantia and Grafera produce are the result of hours of drawing, planning, refinement, and finishing. And in the end, it’s not merely one or one dozen icons created, but rather, hundreds and hundreds. Mantia’s work on the Magic Passport app has approximately 500-600 icons with a single style used throughout the entire icon family. Creating unity and variety among so many different icons—or glyphs, as Mantia calls them—is akin to what a type designer does. So it’s no wonder that Mantia has found type design appealing and even has a few typeface designs to his credit. Icon design and type design both require attention to detail, and the ability to relate form and counterform, creating unity and variety among a myriad of shapes, all with one common purpose: to communicate. Schultz calls this “a framework to enhance understanding.” He sees their work communicating ideas and messages, no matter how simple or complex.
Little Big Things
When he’s not designing type or icons, Mantia stays busy doing what he loves most. “After designing icons for my clients, I like to kick back and design icons for myself.” Grafera shares this insatiable appetite to create, and if there’s one thing that she takes pleasure in, it’s painting and illustrating food—so it’s no wonder that she considers the June Oven project a dream job since she was hired to paint food all day.
Icons for the June Intelligent Oven.
The icons for June Oven have an illustrative quality, with elements rendered in an idealized fashion. You feel like you can reach out and touch them. But that illustrative look and feel is not as widely used these days. There was a time when skeuomorphism was rampant, with two-dimensional objects looking like the real thing. Take for instance a note-taking app with yellowish ruled paper you type on—and a casual script typeface to make your typed notes look handwritten; a book app that houses its titles on a bookshelf; an audio app that’s interface resembles a mixing board you might find at a 1980s radio station. This design aesthetic was popular years ago during the iPhone’s early days, but everything has since become smoothed out and geometric, perhaps a result of Google’s Material Design.
Snacks, from Parakeet’s iMessage sticker pack
Who knows. Perhaps we will see skeuomorphism return when augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) take off. But until then, things will (mostly) continue to appear flat, as Grafera quickly points out, especially when it comes to icon design and icon aesthetics. But there is one place where you can still get non-flat design: emoji. Grafera sees emoji as the last remaining outlet for skeuomorphic, illustrative icon and two-dimensional design. She’s adored emoji since she began drawing them in 2014, so much so that she’s been making her own emoji for years by drawing custom emoji and stickers that she’d like to have.
And you can have their emoji too. Parakeet has released their own iMessage sticker pack, so not only can you get your hands on their designs, but you can share them with your friends, family, and co-workers every time you send a message using your iPhone. Whether emoji or stickers, icons or logos, chances are you’ll continue to see more of Parakeet’s designs in the years to come in apps and messages—and plenty of other places. Their small-scale design will continue to have a big impact, proving that the little things definitely mean a lot.