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Design Trend Report: Hand-Drawn Icons

The resurgence of hand-drawn icons is happening where you’d least expect it: among tech startups looking to make a unique brand identity for themselves. Get ready for a deep dive into making your brand's visual language pop with these icons.

Marc Schenker September 2, 2021 · 11 min read
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In our highly tech-saturated existence, it can be refreshing to see more traditional influences in iconography. When you look at the use of hand-drawn icons in graphic design, logos, and branding projects, you’re transported back to a more handcrafted time where design by hand ruled the day. The resurgence of these icons is happening where you’d least expect it in the 21st century: among tech startups looking to make a unique brand identity for themselves. We’ve been noticing more and more of these illustrated artworks popping up in the design language of these startups. This creates an interesting paradox of old-school meeting the contemporary, which should get designers’ creative juices flowing. Get ready for a deep dive into how tech is relying on hand-drawn icons to make their visual language pop.

The History of Hand-Drawn Icons

If we want to be really thorough, we have to look at the history of drawing to understand hand-drawn logos. Simply put, mankind has been using its hands to put pencil to paper or earth pigments and charcoal to cave walls well before recorded history started. The consensus had recently been that the earliest known hand illustrations ranged from approximately 30,000 to 10,000 B.C.; these are Europe’s cave paintings. However, some evidence for human hand drawings, in the form of red lines upon a stone flake, was discovered by scientists in 2018 in a South African cave, which pointed to a date of 73,000 years.
Image Credit: Tom Rogerson
Whatever we accept as the “real” date of the first hand drawing, suffice it to say that this is one of the oldest expressions of human art. The ancient Egyptians in 3000 BC were prolific artists, as the walls of tombs, temples and pyramids were full of drawings. The world of classical antiquity—the Greeks and Romans—was famous for drawing, too, though this expanded into vases and other pottery. By the Middle Ages, drawings reflected a more religious-based bent, such as the illuminated manuscripts seen in Gothic design. By the Renaissance, drawings took on an added importance as scientific knowledge increased, which necessitated accurate drawings in everything from the human body to nature. As the 19th and 20th centuries came to a close, hand drawings really distanced themselves from any past interpretations of illustration. Put another way, drawings can be anything that illustrators wish them to be, which beautifully explains why designs like hand-drawn logos are so intriguing to us today. And this segues into why so many startups in the tech world and beyond are using icons, hand-drawn or otherwise, in their logos. Thanks to the trend in technology—of mobile and smaller and smaller devices like wearables—the icons and symbols in logos have to work on a smaller and smaller scale. They still have to possess that instant communicability and relatability to strike a cord with a brand’s user base, even if they’re on a really small device. That’s why you don’t see many startups sporting elaborate logos that feature numerous layers and visual clutter—even if the end result is a design that subjectively looks “cool.” Instead, this function-over-form trend in the logo industry, thanks to the tech world, ensures that we’ll continue seeing bare-bones and stripped-down icons for the foreseeable future.
Image Credit: Jason Leung
Also, look at the progression of icon design over the last few decades. When the first Macs hit the market, the very literal use of icons was all the rage: a trash can to delete items on your computer that you don’t want anymore. The Apple logo in and of itself is also the epitome of a literal approach to logo design. These days, however, more abstraction than anything else plays a prominent role in iconography, along with simplicity. Consider the Airbnb logo that doesn’t even come close to resembling anything remotely related to travel or a hotel. Or how about the TripAdvisor logo, which is the head of an owl, or the Slack logo, which is a new spin on the octothorpe (a fancy way of saying the hash symbol)? Nothing about that indicates Slack’s purpose, which is a chat-app for teams. Now, let’s have a look at what traits give this old-school iconography such visual appeal.

The Characteristics of Hand-Drawn Icons

The charm of this traditional way of design is found in its many unique characteristics. In a world where there’s no shortage of digitized icons and logos—complete with the minimalism found in the styles that are so popular on the web, like flat design—seeing principles like asymmetry and rough edges at work can be extremely appealing. It also reminds us that—before tech, smartphones, apps and the web—human beings were illustrating with their hands and were already creating memorable designs. To help us understand the charm of hand-drawn icons, we’ll look at each of its major design traits in turn.

Simplicity

One of the advantages of drawing by hand is that you’re relying on simpler shapes and forms in design because those are the building blocks of any icons or logos. That’s why you’re given to working with the fundamentals when you draw by hand. Compare that to computer software, which lets designers do more complicated and sophisticated things in their iconography. The hand-drawn icons we’re seeing more of at startups are characterized by their minimalist shapes, so much so that they’re sometimes basic. Far from being uninteresting, these fundamental shapes are instantly recognizable, which empowers these startups to communicate what their brand is all about in just a few shapes, lines or combinations thereof. As mentioned above, this minimalism is a necessity of your devices getting smaller and smaller; startups need to be able to ensure that their iconography is easy to see across all brand touchpoints. Here’s an ideal example of the simplicity that hand-drawn illustrations feature:
Note that you can identify these basic shapes and figures on any device size, very easily.

Abstraction

Abstraction is another key component of the hand-drawn icons look. It makes sense when you think about it: When you’re working with such simple shapes and forms, you’ll eventually run out of uses if you think too literally when designing them. After all, a circle that’s drawn exactly like a circle is supposed to look is only going to communicate the same concept, while a circle that’s more abstract and incorporates hints of other shapes or elements can take your icons farther. To boot, these designs are also more interesting. As a result, the various use cases of such a design also increase accordingly. The beauty of abstraction in design is how it uses psychology to produce various interpretations in the audience. On the whole, this leads to a hand-drawn icon that’s more eye-catching, which also succeeds at making your brand stand out. It needs to be said that an abstract icon doesn’t have to be complicated or cluttered, either. Abstraction can still succeed while respecting the first design trait of simplicity. Here’s a good example of that:
These geometric shapes are based on the essential forms of circles, lines, triangles and squares…but the way they’ve been abstracted gives rise to a myriad of different impressions and forms.

Artisanal Flavor

When we speak of artisanal flavor as it relates to hand-drawn icons, we’re not talking about how something tastes. Rather, we’re talking about the traditional, handcrafted approach to icon and logo design that stands in stark contrast to the computer-generated, sleek logos that dominate many of today’s corporate designs. With this artisanal approach to iconography comes the unmistakable feeling that a lot of care, time and effort has been put into a hand-drawn icon. Again, that’s in stark contrast with a logo produced through software, which takes a lot less time. Because of this artisanal flavor in these kinds of icons, your audience also tends to respond with greater appreciation at a design that they know was a labor of love—instead of just something thought up relatively quickly on Adobe Illustrator. For an idea on what this characteristic looks like, see the following design asset:
Remark how each shape—though mundane and very simple—feels like it was designed in a methodical way with great attention to detail and intention. Each line, curve, stroke, and shaded area is there purposely to communicate something specific about the icon.

Asymmetry, Imbalance, and Imperfection

There’s perhaps no bigger telltale sign of hand-drawn icons than the inevitable imperfection in each design, which adds to its unique beauty. Unlike the flashy, computer-created icons we see on all of our apps, these feature asymmetry and imbalance in droves. You won’t see perfect edges, smooth sides, or equidistant lines here. Not only does this asymmetry give these shapes more of an attention-to-detail look, but it also affords them an old-school and traditional vibe that’s quite retro. Before computers came along, designers were all about the natural imbalance that stemmed from hand-drawn creations. Take a look at this example:
It’s obvious that the lack of symmetry and balance in each icon was the intentional goal of the illustrator. The end result is a charming take on icons that you won’t see in many of today’s corporate logos.

Visual Texture

When we speak of texture here, we’re talking about visual texture, which hand-drawn icons rely on in droves. Since the shapes you’re working with are so simple, using texture is a smart approach to add extra depth and meaning to your iconography, which also helps to convey emotion. Icons rely on some of the following techniques to achieve visual texture:
  • Shadows and shading
  • Stippling
  • Lines
  • Curves
  • Two-and three-dimensional angles
The practical effect of this form of texture on hand-drawn icons is that they look more realistic and help to bring the design to life. This is especially vital if your icon is a black-and-white logo, where the absence of color gradients makes it all too easy for an icon to lose the interest of the audience. Look at the use of visual texture in this design asset:
Note how each cooking utensil is bursting with texture, which is important to show it from a specific angle or as having been in use.

Shading

Another important design principle, shading is synonymous with shadows, whether that’s a core shadow (on the object) or a cast shadow (from the object). Again, when you’re using simple forms in your hand-drawn icons and they’re monochromatic, the use of shading will add more layers and depth to the iconography, making it an overall, better design. Besides adding more layers, the use of shadows adds more drama to an icon. This is a crucial point because designers have to ask themselves if they want their brand identity to be more serious or lighthearted. If your icon is already in black-and-white, then using excessive shading will really up the degree of drama. Based on your brand identity, this can be appropriate or a bad idea. In this example, the shading in the icons is extremely prominent:
While this makes icons like the judge’s gavel appear realistic, it gives off a fantasy feel for more everyday icons, such as the plate of pancakes with butter on top.

Tech Startups That Embrace Hand-Drawn Icons

The startup that wants to immediately differentiate itself from a sea of pixel-perfect designs will embrace hand-drawn influences in its brand identity. More and more of these companies are showing off hand-drawn illustrations, so we’ve rounded up the best ones that impressed us.

Mailchimp

Intercom

HelpScout

Buffer

Hand-Drawn Icons: When Artisanal Meets Great Branding

What all these icons prove is that you don’t need computers to create effective and aesthetic logo designs. Far from it, even in the 21st century, the use of traditional, hand-drawn methods still makes an impact. The fact that so many startups are relying on this old-school approach to logos is a testament to hand drawn’s longevity and popularity. Going with hand-drawn icons when far too many companies are relying on excessively neat logos created by computers is a smart design choice. There’s almost nothing better to ensure that you’ll stand out in a unique way.  
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Marc Schenker

Marc is a copywriter and marketer who runs The Glorious Company, a marketing agency. An expert in business and marketing, he helps businesses and companies of all sizes get the most bang for their ad bucks.

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