Denis Sazhin is a designer and icon creator currently residing in New York City. His expressive, animated pet icons are a crowd favorite on Noun Project, and his work extends into animation and motion graphics as well. We caught up with Denis to learn more about his background, his approach to design, and his tips for fellow creators.
Hi Denis! Tell us a little about yourself — how did you get to where you are today?
Most of the time I describe myself as a graphic designer, illustrator and animator. If I want to be more accurate and pet-friendly, I say “a cat artist.” If I want to sound like I nicked my bio from some recruiter’s website I go with “award-winning, result-driven passionate professional.” (No, I never use that. Doesn’t go well with “cat artist.”)
How did I get where I am today… Let’s say trial and error. I am not exactly the kind of person who had their path set up for years ahead; it was more like doing something and checking with myself how I felt about it.
I started as a software developer, transformed into a web designer, tried myself as an illustrator, then discovered the niche field of icon design, where I stayed for a good number of years. Then I got interested in character design and animation, and I’m now looking forward to new challenges.
You’ve worked on projects from simple icon design, to stickers and even motion graphics and animation — what are your favorite types of projects and mediums to work in?
The ones you named are my favorite indeed. Because I have been an independent designer for decades, I was lucky to be able to pick the types of projects that I liked the most.
I wish I could dedicate more time to the animation projects, though; I have always been fascinated by all the fun possibilities and creative freedom it allows.
I also used to run an Instagram account called @cat.cartoon.life where I would post a picture every day with a text description below. At first I wrote those descriptions by hand, but I later designed my own typeface called Meowers. It’s a handwritten-style typeface that helped streamline my content creation, and there are even a couple unique cat glyphs in there as well– I designed it to generate a cat face for (^.^) and cat paw for ==o3, and things like that.
How did you become interested in designing icons, and what is your design process like?
What I like about designing icons is how logic and creativity work together. You have two challenges here: coming up with a nice and clear idea or metaphor, and then making it beautiful in the simplest possible way.
Usually, I start with a metaphor and it looks really boring from the outside: I’m just sitting with my eyes closed, while my mind acts like a lottery bowl shuffling possible ideas until the lucky winner pops up. If I am not able to come up with a metaphor this way, I create a mood board with similar icons/images, and it helps to fuel the brain.
Once the metaphor is set, I do some sketches and figure out the cleanest and the simplest way to depict the idea. Then I choose the color scheme and the style based on the look and feel of the app/website/etc, so the icons become an integral part of the design.
What do you think is key to capturing a sense of character and making a design come to life?
For me, it’s being able to relate to the character. That’s why there are so many cats among my designs: I feel them, I love them, I relate to them.
What tips would you give to fellow graphic designers or icon creators to help them elevate their designs?
Less is more.
If you can’t justify something — don’t do it.
Look at your old designs and see how they can be improved.
What’s one of your most memorable examples of a designer, work of art, or campaign that influenced you or changed the way you think?
The first name that jumps into my mind is (Spanish architect) Antoni Gaudi. To me, his work is pure magic.
Are there any particular designers you like to follow today, or other resources you turn to for inspiration?
Noun Project, of course, is always up there — it’s a huge help for developing ideas and metaphors, and seeing how other designers have solved certain problems.
Dribbble — one of my favorite resources for inspiration and getting familiar with the work of other designers.
What would be your dream project to work on?
I admire Pixar animations. That would be the one, if I’m allowed to dream.
What’s up next for you?
Que sera, sera 🙂