The business of icon design – as a buyer and seller

a designer's guide to the icon business

This guide is written for people looking for the best, high quality icons for their creative projects, presentation designs, and social media graphics. I’ve also shared my experience of creating icons and the business of earning royalties from them.

As a designer I both create icons for the Noun Project to contribute to its incredibly diverse icon resource, and I also subscribe to the service to download icons for my own projects.

What is the Noun Project?

noun project glyph icons

The Noun Project is the world’s biggest icon resource of high quality icons and graphic symbols. I was immediately hooked on the idea from the day I discovered it when attending an infographic design course in London. Noun Project contributors can earn royalties on their icon designs. The customer can either use the icons for free and credit them, or pay a one off fee or subscribe to the service. The main benefit of subscribing for me is the handy widget that allows you to grab icons straight into your Adobe programs in the file format you need.

The icons can be downloaded in SVG vector format which means I can easily edit them and even edit the icons and redraw elements if I want.

How long does it take to design an icon?

Designing and uploading an icon to the Noun Project can take as little as 10 minutes for something simple, so an hour or more for a complex icon. There’s a broad spectrum of icons under the iconography medium that can range from the ultra simple glyph that would appear on a mobile phone interface, to an illustrative icon – and trust me there are some very elaborate works of art on there!

The Noun Project is clearly a great outlet of expression for designers and Illustrators wanting to find a home for their designs. I like the fact that in a short time you can create a finished product that anyone in the world can use.

So for me, being a Noun Project icon designer is more about the contribution you make to the design community. It’s amazing to think my icons have been used for so many projects and that I have found subjects that were previously uncharted. The royalties are a great bonus if you think of it as a little side project. ‘Set it and forget it’ is a phrase another designer mentioned, and this is a good way of thinking of it.

 

Does the Noun Project have the best icons?

diverse icon styles of the noun project glyph line patterns illustration icons

There is no doubt that the Noun Project has the most diverse library of icons in the world. The icons have all been curated and checked for high standards too. But because there is no barrier to entry, one snag is that you’ll often find many duplicate icons for popular subjects. While choice of icon style is great, it can take time to pick out the one you want.

If you’re happy to buy icons and want to save time searching the web for free icons and symbols that may turn out to be low quality or watermarked, I’d recommend subscribing for a month or a year if you need icons a lot for your work.

It can also be difficult to find consistent icons in the same style. It does have some icon sets, which are great for using for certain topics. I made 3 icon sets which you can see below: media skill-sets, data harvesting (made at the time of the Facebook data breach scandal), and water icons. The water icons are just black and white line icons on The Noun Project, as this is the only form they accept.

data collection and data harvesting icon set
media-skillsets-icon-set

Single icons or icon sets?

The Noun Project specialises in flat colour icons in both Glyph and Line style. By ‘flat’ I mean the icons are simply black and not multicolour. Many icons on here are one-offs and very unique. You can find all kinds of strange icons on here that some designs have put out just for fun! That’s why it feels very much a ‘project’ that anyone can take part in rather than just another hard nosed commercial business.

If you’re looking more for special icon styles in a set on a particular subject, then try Iconfinder who specialise in stylised icon sets. This makes sense if you want a ‘ready to go’ illustrative set of icons in full colour for a marketing campaign or business presentation.

If you’re a designer looking to design icon sets, beware that Iconfinder’s review standards are much higher than the Noun Project. It’s much harder to design an icon set because size, line and consistency in your icons are so important to make the collection look professional.

 What kind of icons does Iconfinder specialise in?

Iconfinder icon sets styles examples

The Noun Project pays out monthly royalties which are shared out to designers based on the number of subscribers. Just don’t expect to earn a living out of it. I currently make around $25 a month, from a set of about 130 icons. But this is pretty good considering I didn’t spend too long making them and the icon royalties gradually go up every year. By the end of this year I will have earned well over $1000 and counting.

As for Iconfinder I haven’t had success on this. Because they only allow icon sets I only have 2 collections on there. They rejected my third one due to ‘similarity of icons’ so I gave up. To date I’ve only made $45 on their platform. Less than half the $100 threshold to make a payout! To do well on there you need to be a dedicated icon designer with a knack for designing icon sets and a lot of content. It’s not for the part time icon designer like me. This is why Noun Project suits me to a tee.

How much money can you make on the Noun Project Vs. Iconfinder?

noun project royalty payment for icon creators and contributors

The Noun Project pays out monthly royalties which are shared out to designers based on the number of subscribers. Just don’t expect to earn a living out of it. I started in July 2015 and currently make around $25 a month, from a set of about 130 icons. But this is pretty good considering I didn’t spend too long making them and the icon royalties gradually go up every year. By the end of this year I will have earned well over $1000 and counting.

As for Iconfinder I haven’t had success on this. Because they only allow icon sets I only have 2 collections on there. They rejected my third one due to ‘similarity of icons’ so I gave up. To date I’ve only made $45 on their platform. Less than half the $100 threshold to make a payout! To do well on there you need to be a dedicated icon designer with a knack for designing icon sets and a lot of content. It’s not for the part time icon designer like me. This is why Noun Project suits me to a tee.

The Noun Project icon review wait time…

noun project review wait time screen

I remember when I first started designing for the Noun Project the review time was about 2 weeks. The icon review time then jumped to 10 weeks in 2019, and now in 2020 it’s 18 weeks! As the popularity of the site has grown, and the fact that designers can easily earn royalties with just a Paypal account, it has pushed up the review times to a ridiculously long wait.

Is the Noun Project still topical and up to date?

Well, that’s the thing. It may be a incredible resource, but if you want an icon that’s ultra topical then you may have to go elsewhere.

As a contributor his is an important factor: not only does this mean that I’m no longer excited about contributing icons (because the delay really put me off), but it means another very important conclusion.. The Noun Project can no longer be as topical for trending icons as it once was. A victim of its own success?

For example, when looking for coronavirus icons at the start of the coronavirus crisis I searched for the word ‘pandemic.’ Only 6 icons appeared, and I wasn’t keen on any of them. So I designed my own.

It’s available in our Icongraph App, along with many other topical icons related to the Covid-19 virus, and our easy to use mobile interface.

Icongraph’s coronavirus icons are tagged and searchable

We have added over 20 coranavirus related icons and medical icons to Icongraph – our infographic Maker. Perfect for getting the message out for your presentation visuals in these unprecedented times.

icongraph coronavirus and medical health icons search for infographics

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