How to Design an Icon Set for the Apple Watch

Brian GilhamEssays

As I prepare to wrap up work on the first edition of Chronicons, my menu icon set designed for the Apple Watch, I wanted to share a few of the steps I took to (hopefully) ensure its success.

Designing for a brand-new device — particularly one that hasn’t been released — can be tricky. It’s important to find ways to anticipate design considerations ahead of time, rather than just waiting for launch. Here’s the approach I took:

1. Read the documentation

Often the docs are all you’ll have to go on at first. For Apple products, the Human Interface Guidelines are your bible. Following the guidelines in the HIG won’t stop you from designing garbage, but it’s better than going in blind.

I went one step further and used iOS Artwork Extractor to grab the menu assets included in the beta OS. By studying how Apple’s designers had created their icons, I was better able to understand the guidelines set out in the HIG.

2. Follow what other people are doing

Every morning I sit down with a coffee — or a Red Bull — and open a new tab to the Apple Developer Forums. Ditto for Stack Overflow questions tagged “WatchKit”. Oh, and a Twitter search for the same.

Part of the reason I do this is to find great links for WatchKit Resources. But it also allows me to stay abreast of the problems other designers are facing — and the solutions to those problems. When it’s the Developer Forums, those solutions often come Apple devs, designers, and evangelists. Invaluable. Where I can, I try to offer solutions of my own — either by responding directly, or writing blog posts.

3. Fake it

Designing for a device that hasn’t been released yet is really hard. Sure, you can read the HIG and look at pretty mockups on Dribbble. But it doesn’t help you understand the context your work will be used in. It didn’t for me, at least.

The size of the Apple Watch simulator window can be deceiving. If you want to get a better sense of just how damn small the Apple Watch is, I suggest using Bezel to bring it back down to size.

But that wasn’t enough for me. Forget launch dates, I wanted to hold an Apple Watch now. Enter 3D printing. I created a model of the 42mm Watch and, at one point, strapped it to my wrist with duct tape. If you have access to a 3D printer, I highly recommend it.

Oh, and I wore a bunch of competing smartwatches. Every single one I could find. Pebble, Moto, you name it. Fitness devices like the FitBit and the FuelBand, too. I wanted to understand their individual strengths and weaknesses, along with the benefits of wearables in general.

4. Talk to your future customers

Coming up with icon concepts was easy, at first. I knew the kind of apps I wanted to build for the Watch, so I created icons to fit those ideas. After a few weeks, however, I realized I needed to ask other developers what they were working on.

I chatted with my fellow Apple Watch devs every chance I got. Heck, I still do. I asked them what they were working on, where they saw the Watch going in the future, and what sort of design assets they needed for their projects. Basically, I listened to their needs and then said, THAT’S AWESOME PERHAPS I CAN HELP.

There are plenty of icons that wouldn’t have made it into Chronicons Edition #1 if it weren’t for those conversations. And I already have a great list for Edition #2.

5. Assume you’ll be wrong

This is all well and good, but we still don’t have the damn Watch in our hands. And, despite all the efforts to lessen the risk, that’s still a risk. Particularly when you are asking customers to give you cold, hard cash for your design work. I know there’s a good chance some of these icons will need tweaking once the Apple Watch has been released to the public. If something ends up looking like crap, I don’t want people to feel ripped off. But I also want them to be able to make use of Chronicons now.

To that end, I am committing to free updates for all customers. Dead stop. It just seems like the right thing to do. If you are getting ready to launch your own pre-launch products for the Apple Watch, I would suggest thinking about doing the same.

Working on an awesome app for the Apple Watch? Chronicons Edition #1 will be available March 4th, 2015. Want to hear more from me? Sign up for the mailing list to be first to know about new icons sets and deals.