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Tuesday Chew: Google's Patrick Hofmann tells us why design shouldn’t necessarily blow your socks off.

Google Maps is on the verge of celebrating its fifth anniversary and for three of those years, Sydney-based Canadian Patrick Hofmann has been the big personality behind those teeny tiny map icons. Recently in New Zealand to speak at the Technical Communicators Association Conference, he tells us that icon design isn’t as easy as it looks. How for example, do you go about creating a symbol that universally represents religion? And no, it’s not as easy as using a cross.  

Who the heck are you? 

I’m a Google ‘user experience designer’. Although my focus is on the visualisation and iconography of Google Maps, I’ve been doing a lot of iconography work with the mobile teams and Google Earth. My personal goal is to finish writing a textbook on visual information design. Unfortunately I still haven’t finished it! 

What influences you? 

My parents are both Swiss and moved to Canada in the late 60’s. I’ve always had this knack for minimalism and Swiss design, like the creators of Akzidenz-Grotesk  font and Helvetica. I’ve always been a huge fan of those designer because they took design and realised it didn’t have to be something that people looked at and thought “wow, that’s cool” — it just becomes part of your everyday life. I think a lot of my fellow designers will disagree with me, but I want people not to notice my design. 

What are some of the challenges involved in creating an icon? 

A lot of it is very difficult because the icons are so small. Some of the icons I’m working on at the moment are as small as 12 x 12 pixels. So you’re given a canvas of 144 pixels with which to create an icon. 

How do you create one symbol that is universally recognisable? 

I had to create an icon for places of worship. We wanted to use a single symbol for places of worship for the entire planet. I had a lot of very naive colleagues who told me to just use the cross. What I ended up doing is taking all of the architectural styles featured at the front of places of worship. – the big front entrance, the steeple, the minarets, the high sloping peaks — and collapsed all those different architectural styles and built them into a single façade. It works well. When that symbol is next to a church name for example, then you know it’s a place of worship. But I still think there’s a strong case for localising some icons. 

How long did that symbol take to create? 

Probably a week. I kept getting internal complaints and so kept having to tweak it over and over again. When I released it to the public, I didn’t get a single compliant from users outside of Google. That to me is a successful icon. 

How big is your icon catalogue? 

It’s above 250 right now, and that’s just for Google Maps. I’ve also designed for Google Earth. When you add it all up, I think I’m up to thousands of different icons for Google alone. 

What icon are you most proud of? 

I’m most proud of the place of worship one, despite being a total atheist. I’m really proud of it because it tackled a problem that dealt with religious and political sensitivities. It’s something that is universally problematic. It’s not my experience that I’m trying to build — it’s a user experience that reflects people on the planet and a lot of those people are devout people. 

What’s the secret ingredient to good design? 

Once I put it out there, if there’s a lack of public feedback – that means I’ve designed something good. For me, that’s evidence of good design. Design for me is supposed to be ethereal and inane. 

What’s a bad example of icon design? 

I’ve designed a lot of icons that to me are bad because they’re missing the right message. One of my least favourite is for dentists — a massive silhouette of a molar tooth. It’s hideous and takes up so much pixel space. A colleague sent me a screen shot of an area in Sydney where there were 12 dentist icons invading the map. It looked horrific and made me cringe to see so many molars together. But what’s great about working at Google is that we can change things. 

Who would you most like to design for? 

I would love to re-do the iconography of BlackBerry’s most recent interfaces. The iconography on their black touch screens doesn’t work because the simple white strokes in their icons all look the same and blend into each other. When you have 16 icons on your touch screen, you really want to make sure that they’re distinguishable from each other — by contrast, by colour, by shape.  

Pearl of icon design wisdom? 

Focus on the user and everything else will follow. Design is not just meant to inspire and blow your socks off, it’s also something that 300 million people can use everyday. That for me has been the biggest culture shock and change from how I used to be. Icons need to be instantly recognised. They’re not supposed to be read. They’re supposed to be the most minimal and recognisable of visual cues. As soon as you force the user to spend milli seconds deciphering an icon, or deciphering one icon from another, then you’ve really failed.