The Iconfactory

January 19, 2023

Greensboro, North Carolina. A population of only a quarter-million people. That’s a bit smaller than St. Louis, Missouri (almost three million), and the San Francisco Bay Area (almost eight million).

After living a high-speed life for the last six months in the Bay Area, I was looking forward to slowing down a little in Greensboro. There’s a few things that I want to say before getting into work stuff.

Firstly, I've never owned a car. (I still don’t.) The Bay Area was easy to get around without one, and I think most times it was easier. Greensboro was not like that. I don’t think I could go anywhere but Chick-Fil-A and the grocery store without a car.

Secondly, I could afford significantly more space. My one-bedroom in Mountain View was $1500. My two-bedroom in Greensboro was $600. I don’t think I ever touched the second bedroom. No furniture was ever put in it. It remained empty. I didn’t really need it.

Lastly, I greatly underestimated how incredible it would be to work with the best icon designers on the planet. I went from working with a team of engineers who didn’t think like me to a team exclusively made of people who think like me.

Ged, Corey, Talos, Anthony, David, Mindy, Dave, and Kate. I can’t think of a better group of people. I’m not just talking about their skills. These people are wonderful.

CRAIG AIN’T SO BAD EITHER.

Corey found me an apartment. David drove me to work every day. Because I moved there in November, I wasn’t going to fly back home for Thanksgiving. Talos invited me to his family’s house. That was so sweet. The whole gang had a Christmas dinner together out. I’ll never forget it.

I don’t know how else to describe it other than that I felt so at home. Walking around their office, seeing their personal collection of toys on identical desks, with hanging art of icons they made on the wall, an arcade machine, and a table in the middle for games meetings? This was a pretty ideal work environment for me.

You have to understand, only a few years ago, I thought these people were legends. (They are.) I only ever heard about them online. But here they were in reality, and the last empty desk slot in the office was for me. I cannot express how grateful I am, how lucky I was, how accomplished I felt when I sat down at my desk for the first time.

All the designers there have a very different taste and style from each other, but they all work together so well. If anything, I felt a little intimidated being the youngest, feeling I might muck it all up. But everyone here was determined to not let me fail. I don’t think I knew what the best job could feel like before I had it.

Everyone but me used a Wacom tablet. And everyone but me used Illustrator as their primary icon-drawing tool. (I used Photoshop.) There was a lot to learn. I won’t say I gave the Wacom tablet a fair shake, but I did make an attempt. It wasn’t for me. The other guys used it as a pointing device. Like, to move their cursor around. That felt so weird to me. As for Illustrator, I made my most valiant attempt, and I’m still learning today. (Though, I am using it more predominantly than Photoshop these days, so maybe the tables have finally turned!)

I think as soon as I sat down on my first day, Ged assigned me a QuickPix icon. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Iconfactory lingo, a QuickPix icon was a weekly one-off icon that you could download from the sidebar of the site. Once the next one went up, the old one ceased to be downloadable until the end of the year when they were all wrapped up together in one icontainer. (An icontainer is a container of icons, to use with CandyBar, an app built in collaboration with Panic.)

The icon was of the brand-new unibody MacBook. I like to think it’s a pretty nice icon even by today’s standards!

I don’t know when I got my first client project, or even what it was. But between client work, app design, and freeware icons (which are kind of for fun and kind of for advertising), I feel like I had a pretty good selection of things to do.

The Iconfactory had several apps at the time. Twitterrific, CandyBar, Frenzic, XScope, iPulse. But they were looking to do something new. Another game, maybe. We had a big brainstorming session. One idea I contributed was a Skee-Ball-esque game. Or pinball? Kinda both. Something where you rolled a ball and hit some targets.

I don’t recall how the decision-making on that went, but we started making it. I recommended working with Sean Heber, a developer I greatly respect and enjoyed working with at Tapulous. Sean is particularly great because he anticipates intent extremely well. As an engineer, he’s a pretty good designer. There’s a lot I didn’t have to communicate, because Sean already got it. He was working for DS Media Labs at the time, and we partnered up on this. I think it was originally called Ski Roll.

I designed the rough look of what the ramp and backdrop would look like, and every designer at the Iconfactory designed a different game in that space, with prizes that complemented that game. The prizes were icons. I thought that was a good way to make it tie into the work we did.

David and I collaborated on Clown Town, which I like to think is the “hero” ramp, something you’d actually maybe find at a midway. Anthony made Breakwater Bay, a charming underwater game with crabs and seahorses. Ged created Space Swarm, an homage to neon pixelated arcade games like Space Invaders. Talos made The Icon Garden, a higher bit-depth version of Susan Kare’s icons that made up a near-mythical garden space at Apple’s campus.

In-app purchases were new and perfect to add more ramps. Ninja Attack had black, red, and white ninja designed by David. Tiki Island was a cute dancing ramp from Dave. A weirder add-on pack had a sad dentist experience called Molar Madness from Von, and Happy Place, an extremely cheerful rainbow time that David came up with.

David is a very fast artist and loves to show everyone up, so he also made both Star Struck and Plunderin’ Pirates. Anthony made Trick or Treat, an adorable halloween-themed ramp. And I capped it off with Grave Danger, a spooky graveyard situation.

Actually, there was one other Christmas holiday ramp too. David and I made that together. And a few never got off the floor, like Vicious Vikings, Medieval Mayhem, Yeti or Not, and a Frenzic-themed ramp.

Each one of these was fairly easy to construct thanks to Sean’s ramp editor app. That’s right, we had a macOS app to help us construct everything, move each piece, animate it, script what pops up next, and mark certain targets as qualifiers for an achievement. It was so radical to have a tool built like this, because we could crank out more ramps without bothering Sean too much.

For Ramp Champ, I designed the UI, header title treatments for a few games, some prizes, the shelves, and trophies with David. I went to the boardwalk at Myrtle Beach and recorded sounds. I actually don’t remember if we used them, but I also took a lot of photos for reference of tokens, buttons, and tickets. Sean and I worked together to make tickets dispense in sequential order. There was no real reason to do this.

Internally, we even made this little version called Ramp Champ Derby where people connected to each other’s phones and played a multiplayer ramp to see who could score the most points, making their horse run toward the finish line! It was so cute. I wish that made the cut, but networking was far more difficult than we thought it would be.

Ramp Champ went so hard, and I remember people absolutely loving it. Some people also hated it. But years later, people still bring it up with me, saying how they miss it. Me too.

I also got to work on Twitterrific (versions 2 and 3 for iPhoneOS). As Twitter became more complicated, so did apps for Twitter. One night, David and I met up at a Starbucks (or was it Caribou?) to talk about how to make the iPhone, the brand-new iPad, and the Mac app (which was styled like a HUD window at the time) all share the same UI. We sketched up a plan and presented it the next day to the guys. And then we made it: Twitterrific 4. All around, a solid release! To accomplish some of it, Sean had to rewrite a lot of UIKit for macOS. That turned into Chameleon.

And we also made a game called AstroNut with Robert Neagu. It had this really fun mechanic of launching from one planet and kinda orbiting around others. David made all the character artwork for the game, while I focused on the UI, logo, planets, wormholes, and fuel and oxygen pickups. I made some very over-the-top iPad UI ideas when iPad became a thing to consider.

We also made a quick-tap game called Pickin’ Time. The art was all David. And it was super cute, very fun, and easy for anyone to play. Games in the App Store used to be able to be so simple.

For client work, there was a lot! Icons for Xcode, AT&T, Microsoft PowerPoint. Over 20 independent developers. I worked with ngmoco again, teamed up with Raven to design the Starbucks app, and made an extremely goofy icon for an app called Briefs.

And then there were so many freeware icons I made. I made a few QuickPix icons, an extensive app icon replacement set called Flurry with David, a Frenzic-themed system replacement icon set, Apple-industrial-design-inspired hard drive icons, Battlestar Galactica icons with Corey, and …official Star Trek icons? Little did I know then, the icons and wallpapers I made were things that my future friend Clint Schultz designed for the actual movie!

Oh gosh, how could I forget Hexy? Sean and I also made a little side iPhone game for a classic game called Hex. It’s a two-player strategy game. We made it themed to honeybees. Then they became robobees?? (I don’t know. Don't ask me.) I drew the app, I composed music and made sound effects. (??) David drew the bees.

Working at the Iconfactory was a blast. But this, plus my time at Tapulous was maybe the “last two years of college” that I was missing.

After I met my then-partner Erica, we wanted to move to San Francisco together. So I called up those people in Cupertino again to see if they had any work for me.