The art of iconography by Mei Støyva

The art of iconography

By Mei Støyva Jun 2

Every week, our Junior Creative Mei Støyva translates a bundle of assorted ideas into a set of beautiful icons for our weekly email newsletter delve. How does she do it?


As someone who’s actively trying to go to the cinema more often, working on delve is very convenient! Our free email newsletter tells you the one film you can’t afford to miss at the cinema each week.

But one of my favourite things about delve is that it also gives you four links that are thematically linked to the Film of the Week. Not only are they incredibly good reads, but it’s my job to illustrate these links each week in form of icons - and it’s my job to do it with style.

Designing icons probably sounds (and looks) pretty easy. But while some icons are (literally) a piece of cake to draw out, some links require icons that are a little brainier than that.

How do you compress “100 years of Persian beauty” into just one icon, for instance? How do you depict sex without being rude? And how do you convey abstract concepts such as artificial intelligence in an instantly comprehensible way, twice, without repeating yourself?

Well, sit back and relax, because you’re about to find out(-ish) in this step-by-step guide.

Step 1: Remember the rules (and the research)

There are two rules that I keep in mind when designing icons for delve. The icons must be…

1. Instantly understandable

2. Quick and easy to make

Copy is usually ready by Thursday and the newsletter is sent out on Friday morning, which means we have Thursday afternoon to design and build all the bits and pieces.

As soon as I get the copy, I read through it carefully, as the main clues to what I’m going to draw are usually found in the description of the links. I also make sure to visit the links themselves to get a better idea of how to best represent them.

Here’s an example: for the A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night newsletter, we ran a link with the description “Of course, Iran’s always had style. Watch 100 years of Persian beauty in just over a minute.

Obviously, the icon would have to convey the concept of beauty somehow, but I knew very little about Persian style. However, after seeing the video, I instantly knew what I had to draw:

Step 2: Dubious Google searches (and the importance of feedback)

Having gone through the links and gathered some ideas, I’ll now quickly jot down a few sketches to make sure what I’m visualising in my head will actually translate into a two-colour icon.

Icons can’t afford the luxury of being incredibly detailed, so they need to get the message across within a very simple range. If I can’t sketch it out easily on a piece of paper, it probably won’t work well as an icon.

Another thing I’ll often do is look at how other artists have envisioned the same thing by making a quick Google search. It doesn’t always yield the best results (“sex icon”, anyone?) but it does usually give me a pretty good idea of the kind of associations people have around a particular concept.

After redrawing the icons properly in Illustrator, I send them to the rest of the delve team for feedback.

Sometimes the feedback is pretty straightforward (“Make the cake look more awesome” or “Can we see more of the robot mecha suit combat armour’s torso?“).

And sometimes you’re halfway through drawing out the molecular structure of oxytocin when someone asks you if you can draw a tomato instead. But the feedback is always helpful and we get there in the end!

Step 3: There’s no "I” in “team” (but there is one in “icon”)

At this point - or usually a bit before - if there’s a link I haven’t had any good ideas for, I throw it to the team to see what they come back with. It’s a huge relief to know I have a great team who’ve always got my back and can help me out when I’m stuck. Five heads are better than one!

An idea from one of my co-workers that I absolutely loved was for another of the links in A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night: what it’s like to be a woman in Iran. The finished icon combined the star and crescent with the female gender symbol - such a brilliantly simple and effective piece of communication!

Step 4: S is for subscribe (to delve)

Once the icons are drawn out and approved by the team, I flow them into the newsletter along with the copy. A test email is then sent out and, once everything’s in order, the newsletter is scheduled for 9am the following day.

That’s my typical Thursday afternoon. After which I go home, kick off my shoes and promptly fall asleep on the sofa at 7.30pm.

But I know what you’re thinking: how do you convey abstract concepts such as artificial intelligence in an instantly comprehensible way, twice, without repeating yourself? Well, if you want to figure that one out, you’re going to have to subscribe to delve…

Thanks for reading! Here’s a dog doing algebra.

And a look at (nearly) all the icons I’ve done so far!

Mei x