Interview with guys behind IconJar
We’ve been planning to interview our friends from IconJar for quite some time now. And, finally, we did it! Earlier this year, after two years of running a public beta, they released IconJar 1.0; so this was a really great time to catch them and chat about these busy years building the app, and what’s next in the roadmap. We got to talk to Davey (mostly) as well as Curtis, the two guys behind the Iconjar project.
For those who don’t know what IconJar is, it’s so far the most intuitive macOS app for managing icons. These days, when it doesn’t take long to gather thousands of icon files on your hard drive, IconJar is a real helper making it easy to organize them all. It works like a charm for searching, recoloring, exporting and dropping the icons into any software of your choice.
Now let’s hear more about it from the creators themselves.
Ieva: Hi Davey! Thanks for agreeing to have an interview with us. We’ve wanted to chat with you for quite some time. And let’s start from the beginning… Could you briefly describe your and Curtis’ background and how you came up with the idea that later turned into IconJar?
Davey: I’m a product designer and Curtis is a full-stack developer. At the time I came up with the idea for IconJar I was still a student and I had thousands of icons stored on my computer. It was just a simple exercise to explore visual styles for a Mac app, which I then uploaded to Dribbble. The Dribbble shot got quite a lot of attention, from one guy in particular (Pascal Gärtner). He motivated me to continue working on this project and find a developer in order to solve a problem a lot of people were having, which was managing a lot of icons.
One thing lead to another and Pascal helped me design a landing page that was initially meant to find a developer who wanted to work on the project in his spare time too. Instinctively, I added an email subscription form on the page which lead to 1500 subscriptions in under 48 hours, which was an overwhelming amount. The landing page not only got me in touch we developers, but it also validated the problem we were trying to solve even more.
The landing page lead me to Curtis by the way. We both worked on the project ever since for free with little income from Iconfinder advertisement on our website. We launched our public beta in 2015. Along these two years of running a beta (we released a 1.0 version earlier this year), we learnt a lot, and found out that managing icons is more than just storing icons in an app.
Ieva: So what are the key elements you have to address to ensure good icon management?
Davey: Performance and searchability was very important to us. We put into action a couple of features that ease searching and managing the right icons. We built an alternative to Quicklook optimised for previewing the selected icon in the best possible way. The window allows users to resize the icon and add a background color. In 1.0 we added the possibility to change the color of the previewed icon and exporting.
I always thought IconJar would be used by designers only but during the beta period I slowly gained the knowledge that our target audience included developers, marketeers and even project managers.
Ieva: Could you tell me a bit about how you organized the process from the concept to beta version and finally to the 1.0? Especially since you and Curtis were working remotely and in your after hours?
Davey: We both still work on the app in our spare time which is challenging but very inspiring since we’re both motivated to make the best possible app for icons. We use Skype to communicate and we ping each other on WhatsApp when it’s important. Project management happens on Github which gives insights in our roadmap and progress. This process hasn’t been this smooth in early stages of our journey though. In the very beginning we used Skype for everything and we occasionally sent files back and forth.
Curtis is responsible for the development side of the Mac app, and I make sure the user experience is easy to understand, everything looks good, and design / code the website. I must admit that Curtis is responsible for a lot of UX decisions too though. Great ideas can come from anyone.
Curtis: Due to working full time as a Senior Web Developer, all personal projects were restricted to evenings and weekends. This is partly why IconJar was in beta for so long, there simply wasn’t enough time in the day to be able to work on it. And being human, sometimes you just don’t want to get home to stare at a screen after just doing that for eight hours straight.
Working with Davey remotely has been fairly straightforward. Luckily, the time zone doesn’t really affect us, Davey is only one hour ahead of me, which is great!
Ieva: Have you ever been designing icons? :)
Davey: Yes! I designed a free icon pack that contains icons that are inspired by camera interfaces, and of course I also designed the icons we use in our Mac app.
Ieva: Nice! You’ve surely been following the icon design industry for quite some time… Do you remember who were the first icon designers that you had discovered?
Davey: Definitely, I must admit that I used free icons for a very long time when I was still a student. I always liked the Feather icons (which released a new version recently) and I have also been using Iconfinder for years already.
I always found icons expensive but now that I’ve grown older and seen more icons I truly see the value of premium icons. Premium icon sets are usually a lot more consistent, contain more icons and have a more sophisticated style. A lot of people who sell icons do it as their day job, and it shows in the quality of their work. There’s absolutely no margin for error because it’s their main source of income.
Ieva: True, we see more and more designers leaving their day jobs to focus 100% on icon design.
Davey: Speaking of icon sets, I truly believe that icon designers are the reason why IconJar has become such a success. Designers such as Vincent Le Moign have been distributing .IconJar archive files with his sets even when we were in beta. This generated a lot of exposure which lead more icon designers to follow his example.
Ieva: Do you have any icon design stars that you’re keeping an eye on?
Davey: I’ve noticed that DutchIcon has been working on his public presence lately and he is an amazing icon designer. I love his work for Transavia where he designed the icons for the bottom of the Transavia airplanes. It’s super smart to make the bottom of airplanes more appealing because airplanes are often viewed from underneath.
Ieva: In February you released Iconjar 1.0. What were the key triggers for this upgrade?
Davey: We always ran a very stable beta and after two years we felt it was the right moment to finally call it a 1.0 release. The release included a couple of new features such as export and a Sketch plugin that allows people to import selected layers into IconJar.
We always planned to keep IconJar free but soon came to realise that the project has gotten too demanding to maintain without income. Running a side-project of this scale requires a lot of time which we felt needed to be compensated. Therefore we decided to make 1.0 a paid upgrade which allowed us to put time aside for keeping the development moving forward.
Ieva: Over the 2 years of running beta you’ve probably received lots of feedback from the users. How did you manage to balance between what users had been requesting and your own vision and insights of shaping Iconjar?
Davey: We received a lot of feedback. Even feedback on things we didn’t think of when we started working on IconJar. Larger companies wanted to show licenses of each icon / sets in the app in order to not violate copyright laws, for example.
Not all feedback lead to new features or improvements in the app though. Some requests were a little too complex to work on and some simply didn’t align with our vision for the app. But I have to say that the majority of the feedback we got was really useful. So if any of our beta testers read this: thank you very much.
Ieva: Could you tell us a bit more about the design process of Iconjar 1.0? What tools do you use for design work? And how do you share your design ideas with Curtis?
Davey: We used to design in Photoshop, but it didn’t really work for us so we moved to Sketch which offers a way more streamlined experience for UI design. We’re a very small team of two people so most of our discussions related to a design just happen over Skype, by sending a screenshot to discuss about.
Ieva: Do you go for pixel perfect design before implementing, or just some more rough concepts?
Davey: I designed a UI kit for Mac apps some time ago with a friend of mine and I mainly use those elements to lay out the design. These elements are fairly high-fidelity already but it’s by no means pixel perfect until we’re both satisfied.
Ieva: And what about the website?
Davey: That process is actually quite similar. A while back I designed a UI-kit that contains colors, typography, buttons and input fields so I use those elements to quickly mockup a page.
I always tweak things in code though, because I simply prefer to work with real content.
Ieva: Have you experienced any major challenges while bringing IconJar 1.0 to life?
Davey: Oh yes, definitely. I used to work with another developer in the very beginning when I was still collaborating with Pascal, but at one point this developer told me he had no time to work on IconJar anymore. This came as a shocker but I was very lucky to have found Curtis not long after that though.
One of the concerns I had was making sure people wouldn’t continue using our beta when 1.0 was out. Our beta was very stable so we had to find a way to notify people about the new release.
Curtis: One of the biggest challenges was rendering SVG’s. Mac OS by default has no way of rendering them like you would do with a generic image. We had a very specific set of requirements that we needed to meet when performing the rendering of them, which other third party open source libraries could not give us, so, we decided to create our own! IconJar has a custom SVG rendering and exporting Library called IJSVG which we’ve open sourced and maintain on Github. Believe it or not, there is more SVG rendering code in IconJar compared to the rest of the application code.
The other major challenge was performance — loading and rendering what could be up to 1k icons to the screen whilst scrolling is not an easy task. We use a lot of modern multi-core technologies to help us with this. We even wrote some of the really performant code in C instead of Objective-C because the Objective-C API’s were actually too slow! We often get praised for our performance, IconJar scales very well even on the oldest and slowest of Macs.
Ieva: What were the actions that you overtook to smoothly transition your users from beta to version 1.0?
Davey: We didn’t have to do a lot, to be honest. We already had our target audience using the beta so when we launched 1.0 a lot of people knew that we were out of beta.
We started with rolling out a new website that described our new release. Existing beta users were given two weeks to download version 1.0 before we officially pulled the plug on our public beta. People were then presented with a screen that thanked them for using our beta with a link to our website to download our stable release. If there’s one thing I learned from this it’s that you shouldn’t forget to lead people by the hand by making sure they have all the information they need to take action.
Ieva: What are you personally most proud of about the 1.0 release?
Curtis: That’s a very difficult question to answer. I think myself and Davey are very proud of the whole product. Personally, I am very proud of the adoption rate. From what originally was a small project that was supposed to sit in the menu bar — to a fully fledged application for managing various types of icons now, it’s pretty satisfying knowing anyone from small individuals to large companies use it and love it. Seeing our .IconJar format being adopted and widely used by the icon community is also absolutely fantastic and we can’t wait to see it being adopted even more.
Davey: I’m the most proud of designing a product that fits the needs of a niche so well. The adoption of our app skyrocketed not too long after we launched our public beta. We already had a fairly small audience because of the landing page we launched. Our audience quickly increased when icon designers started to endorse our app by distributing .IconJar files along with their icon sets.
I personally didn’t have a lot of knowledge on product growth until not too long ago. Everything fell into place when I looked back to our journey and noticed that some actions we took resulted in a huge snowball effect. Our .IconJar file format is an amazing example of that.
Ieva: Could you give the readers some teasers of what is next in the IconJar roadmap?
Davey: We’re currently looking into partnering up with Iconfinder even better. Iconfinder is looking into adding .IconJar archives to their growing list of icon sets. This is absolutely amazing for us because it allows us to also import the tags used on Iconfinder as well. Let alone expose our file format to the target audience of Iconfinder.
Ieva: We are very excited about this next step too! And what about your vision for IconJar in a long-term?
Davey: Now that IconJar generates revenue it creates more opportunities to develop the app even further. We have some features on our roadmap already but we prefer not to plan ahead too far because we never know how people react to the things we ship until users actually use them. Releasing updates might bring up new issues with a higher priority than things further down the roadmap. It’s a thing I learned during my graduation internship and will never forget.
Ieva: That sounds like a great philosophy! And with this we have reached the finish line of our interview. Thank you very much for sharing your story and insights with us.
Davey: You’re welcome :)
We hope you enjoyed reading the interview. By the way, IconJar guys are giving an exclusive 20% discount on IconJar to all Iconfinder blog readers.