December 20, 2023 • Louie Mantia

After Brad, Jessie, and I got our first office at the Phelan building in San Francisco, other startups began to move in too, like Jelly, a Biz Stone joint. Before I knew Luka Grafera, they worked just twenty steps away from me, at Jelly. They later moved to some spare office space at the Lucasfilm campus in the Presidio.

Having seen some of Luka’s work online, I sent a message to them on Facebook in late 2013, asking if they wanted to meet. We planned for lunch at a cafe near the Presidio one day in December, but that morning, I cancelled so I could have a company lunch with my team at Pacific Helm.

A few months later, they reminded me that we still hadn’t met. So we went to a cafe called Arlequin in Hayes Valley on a rainy night, not too far from where each of us lived at the time.

I should tell you now, there was a little ambiguity around what this was. Luka thought it was a business meeting. Maybe I hoped it was a date. (We were both right.) I didn’t catch that Luka only ordered coffee. I ordered myself a light dinner and politely waited 20 minutes for the food they never ordered to arrive. We were having such a nice time, so we walked down the street to another place.

Like a total dweeb, I brought my laptop to a wine bar. I showed Luka the whiskey glass icon I made recently, and we quickly connected over icons. After Luka showed me the work they were doing, I could see they were an illustrator stuck at an app company. We were so inspired by each other and immediately wanted to work together. On anything.

So we did. I was frequently at Luka’s apartment, and we’d draw things all day. I even moved a Cinema Display over so I could work there. On their chalkboard, we made icons. On our computers, we made icons. Since we both grew up playing Crash Bandicoot (and Spyro), we made Crash Bandicoot icons for macOS. And we drew matching pixel avatars. It was all really cute.

We started to bond over the silliest things. We’d be in an Uber on the way somewhere, and I could just say, “Hey Luka, look at the lock icon on the door.” And we both would just bust up laughing. We have a similar perspective about things. Without explanation, we would both get it. It felt great to be understood on that level, especially so effortlessly.

Jessie used to joke with me that “the third date is Disneyland.” (I have a tendency to take people to Disneyland really early in a relationship.) So we went. And made a habit out of it. And while Luka wasn’t necessarily a fan of Disneyland before, they grew to love it once they saw it the way I do.

The two of us spent all summer making all sorts of pop culture pixel icons, food and condiment emoji, icons for Magic Passport, travel stickers for our matching retro luggage, and elaborate chalk drawings of World of Color or Dole® Whip™. We just couldn’t stop making art together.

In the fall, we flew to Portland for XOXO (again, a festival for makers who live on the Internet). We had a late night dinner after the festival and wondered… why not live here? We could live here. Could we run our own studio? Why not?

I asked My Lawyer Gabe™ (Levine, of “Fuck You, Pay Me” fame) if he knew a lawyer that was like him, but in Oregon. He recommended Josh Barrett, who turned out to be perfect for us. Josh is very much a critical part of what Parakeet is and how it works. My understanding of lawyers before I knew Gabe and Josh was that they told you what you could and couldn’t do. It was only after that I realized I had it wrong.

Good lawyers don’t tell you what you can’t do. They help you find a way to do what you want to do. And Josh has always worked with us in a way that makes us feel empowered. He’s our best advocate. (Later, a very cool thing happened: Gabe and Josh formed a new law firm together. So now we have the best of both.)

I don’t remember exactly how we decided on Parakeet, but I know the parameter was straightforward: we wanted a very visual name. It had to be something that instantly evoked an image.

At that time, Luka and I really leaned into teal and yellow respectively as our personal brand colors. When Luka suggested Parakeet as the name, one thing we loved was that parakeets can be any color, especially those colors.

We started sketching birds perched inside hoops, and where better to do that than at a tiki bar like Smuggler’s Cove?

We moved to Portland at the beginning of February 2015, about one year after we met. We were still trying to figure out our logo, so we kept sketching on the plane.

We hadn’t even fully unpacked yet, but within just one week, we set up a new business bank account, established a company with Josh’s help, launched an incredibly minimal website, and met with our first client. (Who could it be?)

Years ago, when Brad and I were working for UpThere in Palo Alto, a stranger (who I would soon discover was Darian Edwards) stopped me on the street, “Are you Louie Mantia?” (This doesn’t happen often, so I froze.) Brad immediately jumped in, “Hey! I’m Brad.” Some time later, Darian had moved to Oregon and started working for Nike.

And that’s who needed a full suite of icons. Nike. With contracts squared away (thanks Josh), we started working with them just 12 days after we moved. I still kinda can’t believe how quickly all of it came together like that.

Nike was a great first client for us to have.

Parakeet was so fresh …we didn’t know what our roles were yet. Luka was spending time making Quartz Composer stuff, I was sketching on paper. Luka was doing the vector work. It only took a couple days before it became clear that actually— Luka was the freehand drawing person, I am the geometric vector drawing person, and neither of us really wanted to design software anymore. I’ll do a bunch of layer styles, but I’ll pass it over to Luka to draw highlights and shadows. They’ll pass things to me to adjust size and weight. I’ll tackle the color palette stuff. Luka will draw animals. It became so clear.

Over time, we learned that almost everything one of us didn’t want to do, the other probably did. There’s no struggle between us for what needs to get done or who should do it. In fact, the Parakeet logo may represent the only real design struggle we had. Luka wanted something more organic. I wanted something more geometric. We met in the middle and didn’t make any alterations to it until much, much later. (I finally relented in making it more organic, but by then Luka grew accustomed to the old one.)

A few months later, my friend Clarko came to me, needing some food icons for a new tabletop smart oven that could identify food you put inside. This was such a rewarding project (especially for Luka), because they got to make lots of small illustrations of food. Every now and again, we get a request to expand this set, which is a joy to do every time.

Of course, Luka and I were still making things together outside of work, too. We melded the style of Apple’s smiley emoji with the characters from Inside Out. The result seemed perfect for something like Slack, if Pixar used it. I asked my friend Collin Allen (who works there) if they use Slack (they do) and sent the emoji over for them to use internally.

In early 2016, Phred Lender (another Pixar friend) referred us to Sarah Shen, from their tools team. Pixar became a For Real™ client, and we got to design icons and UI for their animation software Presto, including an icon for the software itself.

And then I had a thought— if there was a single-color logo version of that icon, would they want to use it in the end credits? I made it not knowing the answer, and I’m delighted to say that it now appears at the end Pixar’s films. That’s a huge emotional win for us. (We went to see Onward and left the theater with tears in our eyes. Everyone in the lobby wondered what movie we had just came out of. They couldn’t understand.)

When we started working, we had two desks in our bedroom. (Dear reader, if you can help it, don’t do that.) We soon moved into a different apartment to make the second bedroom into the cutest home office I could’ve imagined. Later, when we got a house, we were sure to have two separate offices. (This is the story of Parakeet’s growth, everybody.)

Also starting in 2016, my old friend and Apple coworker, Brian Frick was now working at Facebook. They were setting out to create an emoji set. In addition to Brian and myself, there was also Matt Evans and Kellie Albert. The four of us were the visual design team for iTunes and iLife back in the day. It felt cool to get the whole band back together. With Luka and also David Lanham, I think I started hearing the Avengers theme song playing in my head.

It may not be super obvious, but there are literally thousands of emoji to make, so we split it up. Based on the creative direction “soft Japanese erasers,” Luka and I tackled the smilies first.

Then Luka split off to make all the food and clothing emoji, while I made the objects, symbols, and some scenes. David took over the animals, Matt made all the humans. Brian filled in gaps between things. Luka and I alone made about 800 emoji for the set.

This set contains so many little easter eggs and references. As a fan of Disneyland, I couldn’t resist making the ferris wheel and roller coaster emoji the Sun Wheel and California Screamin’ from California Adventure. The monorail emoji is a reverse color scheme of the Disneyland Monorail. Oh, and the kite is from Mary Poppins. But of course, there were references to ourselves too, like the Grafera-brand handbag and the Mantia-brand can of tomatoes. We also made the calendar, beeper, and receipt reference important things in Facebook’s history. As you can imagine, a project of this scale lasted a few years.

Between projects (when?!), we’d schedule trips to Tokyo, Disneyland, and Tokyo Disneyland. A lot of early Parakeet was genuine, sincere investments in travel to find things that inspired us, documenting everything we saw, and drawing a lot of art after. (Also while traveling, we found our Nike icons in Shibuya! That was a very pleasant surprise.)

We also made time to create an extensive stock icon set called Primaries. We drew a dozen, then a hundred, then launched with 256 (a nice round number). We kept working on Primaries between client projects, making several hundred more icons. It became something developers knew us for. They bought it while developing their app, and then later came to us for an app icon or a more personalized icon set when they finished the app. Didn’t plan on that, but worked out great!

Jessie Char went into business with Elaine Pow to produce events like Layers, a design-focused conference alongside Apple’s WWDC. The four of us were all fans of Disneyland, so we’d sometimes go together. One trip inspired an idea to adapt the attraction Animation Academy into Emoji Academy. At Layers, Luka and I taught attendees how to draw emoji, which turned out great. That night, we threw a party for designers at Pagan Idol, Dole® Whip™ and all.

Starting in 2017, we created Facebook Messenger’s entire icon suite, a little over 400 icons. That same year, we redrew all of Instagram’s iconography for an app update, and also made a few dozen stickers for Instagram Stories.

Parakeet was making logos for companies, products, a retail store, and even a bar. We made the first logo for OpenAI. We’ve made digital stickers for Target, iJustine, George Lopez (??), and Playdate. Dozens of app icons for indie apps like Halide, Mezzanine, and Apollo. Hundreds of emoji, and thousands of stylish glyphs. It feels so great to have this breadth of work that all feels like it’s in our wheelhouse.

One extremely fun client to work with was Barilla. In 2018, Alessio Gianni posited (as many Italians probably do) that the standard spaghetti emoji 🍝 is kind of a travesty. I mean look at it, the sauce just dumped on top? What is that?! 🤌

Our job was to make a more-accurate emoji-type illustration of spaghetti pomodoro. What we quickly discovered was that we needed to put in a lot more detail than a typical emoji illustration.

Barilla loved what we made, so the next year, they asked us for nine more classic pasta dishes in the same style. Luka crushed it. After the project, Barilla invited us to the Pasta World Championship in Paris. At this point, I think Luka and I were questioning reality.

The event was great, and gave us the opportunity to go see and soak up a lot of art in France and Italy before we headed back home. Thanks for that opportunity, Alessio.

We later made 200+ single-color emoji for Quill, which got bought up and shut down really fast. While some of our work lasts for many years, sometimes it’s very temporary.

Oh, and in late 2019, we made a new suite of icons for Twitter (💀🕯 RIP 💐🪦). They never got around to using that. Which—in the end—is fine, I guess.

A few months ago, we created over 200 extra-round* icons for Patreon.

* including interior corner rounding

We continue to make icon set after icon set for our clients, really honing in on what Parakeet was always meant to do: specializing in cohesive icon systems and complementing that work with beautiful app icons.

We’ve also become particularly efficient at it. For example, earlier this year, we made 876 icons for Notion in just a couple months. It’s—without a doubt—Parakeet’s best work.

To date, we’ve worked with over 100 different clients, on at least that many projects. And for each one we do, we’re doing something we’ve never done or seen before, going beyond our comfort zone, broadening our capabilities. It’s so satisfying to get extremely good at a craft, but even more so doing it together with someone.

I’ve never worked with anyone who complemented my work as well as Luka. What either of us do makes each others’ work better. And it’s what makes Parakeet work so well.

Parakeet represents the longest stretch of work for me. For every other job I had before, it was under 3 years. But Parakeet will celebrate its 9th anniversary come February 2024, and I hope this collaboration lasts forever.

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