4 hour icon design challenge

At MonkeySource, we’re constantly expanding our expertise and pushing ourselves in order to successfully complete new challenges. There are loads of ways we top up our skills outside of client projects too, where we can really experiment without compromise.

Recently I discovered Briefbox, a great tool for designers to unleash their creativity and sharpen up their skills. It’s basically a space full of ‘fake’ design briefs (digital design, illustration, branding etc.) which you can undertake in your spare time. The reason I say ‘fake’: as far as I know, these briefs weren’t created by paying clients… but they’re pretty detailed and even come with time frames.

Whilst browsing (and feeling pretty inspired), I came across a brief I liked which asked for icons to represent 4 cities across the world. It was here that I had the idea to challenge myself to complete this brief within 4 hours. At MonkeySource, we’re always encouraged to take on new challenges in order to expand our know-how, so I decided to give it a go.

My process

Inspiration and research

I knew that I didn’t have a lot of time to complete this task, so I kind of had to research and experiment as I went along. I wasn’t very comfortable with this, as I really do think that research is a step you shouldn’t miss out. But I was interested to see how I would do, relying on techniques and ideas already cemented in my brain. No planning, pretty much just jumping straight in.

Where I started

I don’t know why but Paris was the first city I decided on. Perhaps I just thought of iconic landmarks and the Eiffel Tower just popped into my head. At this stage, I had no idea what style I wanted my icons to be, I didn’t know if I wanted to create line icons, block icons, detailed icons, arty icons… so I just opened up Illustrator, pulled in a picture of the Eiffel Tower and started drawing.

How my icons progressed

About an hour had passed by, and through a little bit of experimentation, I’d come up with the below. The trouble with making an icon of a landmark this detailed was knowing where to stop. I realised that if I carried on with the detail that I wanted, I’d be there for hours and I wouldn’t have time to complete the rest. So I changed my approach.

My original Eiffel Tower attempt

My winning approach

I decided to create all 4 icons, to the same level of basic detail, knowing that if I had time I would go in and add more detail to the set gradually. This was my peace of mind; I knew that I would end up with something vaguely consistent if I worked in this way.

My second attempt

Above is my second attempt. It was a pretty safe style to go with. I always knew that, in 4 hours, I’d never end up with perfect icons, but I felt like I had a good starting point with this one.

My first attempt at Sydney Opera House

The next city icon I chose to create was Sydney. I’ve always loved the bold shapes of the Sydney Opera House and I thought how awesomely this could transform into an icon or illustration. At the point of creating the above, I realised that the white areas would either need an outline of some kind or a background in order to stand out.

Originally, I tried to put the icons in circles, but it didn’t look right, and it was boring. I wanted an outcome which was a bit more exciting and out of the ordinary. I had been playing around with a distressed painted effect a few days beforehand and I thought how something like this could contrast nicely with the smooth outlines of my icons. I chose colours appropriate to the icons; a sky blue for the Eiffel Tower, and a sea blue for the Sydney Opera House.

My third icon I created was for Rio. I immediately thought of Christ the Redeemer. I knew that this would be difficult, but that was part of the appeal.

Christ the Redeemer statue, Rio De Janeiro

I’ve always been fascinated with this cultural icon of Brazil. There’s something about the way it towers over the city, with its contours and detailing across the robes, and I wanted to do it justice.

I didn’t want to go overboard with details. I tried to create detailing in the face, but I wasn’t sure that the outcome would be very good in the time I had. However, I was able to make use of the basic stroke types Illustrator had to offer when it came to creating the creases in the robe.

Stroke types in Illustrator

London was next. I was well into the swing of my mini project by this point, so it was pretty easy to create Big Ben. I did, however, encounter the same problem I had with my Eiffel Tower icon. When I really looked at the image of Big Ben as I was drawing, I was reminded of the difficulty of transforming such a detailed building into an icon without losing its personality. Ideally, it would’ve been useful to print out all of the landmark img and use tracing paper and a pencil to experiment with different levels of detail but that would’ve taken time I didn’t have…

My first attempt at Big Ben

The final result

Considering the variety of materials and shapes of the real life objects, I was pretty pleased with the overall consistency of my illustrations/icons. If I’d gone further and made a set of 10 or even 20, I think that, naturally, they would have appeared more consistent because of the broader range objects.

My final tweaks

I made the decision to use a MonkeySource-esque colour palette, because I thought it added to the fun. I also added the circular ‘bases’ to my landmarks, so they didn’t look as floaty.

After looking at them as a set, I added some more detail with thinner strokes to my Paris icon and my Sydney icon. With limited time left, I wanted to ensure as much consistency as possible and take them to the same level of detail as the other 2 icons. I did this by adding the wooden plank detail on my Sydney icon, and the cross detailing on the Eiffel Tower, which represent its structure in more of an abstract way.


A pretty ‘abstract’ version of the Eiffel Tower… Probably the one I am the least pleased with. After all, it was the first icon I attempted as I was still getting my bearings for this project.

My Paris icon


I think Big Ben could do with some tweaking, but, overall, it looks like Big Ben and it’s relatively consistent as part of a set.

My London icon


This icon ended up a lot wider than the rest of the icons. If I’d had more time, I probably would have tried to simplify it a bit, without losing its bold and striking aesthetic. However, I think if my set of icons was expanded to represent even 10 different cities, the widths would vary a little more and it would create a stronger overall consistency.

My Sydney icon


Christ the Redeemer. This one is my favourite. It’s pretty scalable, and considering the time limits I had, I’m pleased with the overall detail.

My Rio icon

My thoughts about this challenge

I really enjoyed this challenge. I think it’s always great to test yourself and your creativity, especially if you’re a designer. For me, it really helps to create and maintain good habits in my design process.

I already suspected that it would be a challenge to create anything successful without time to research and plan (it’s part of the MonkeySource way of life) but testing this theory out just made me believe in it even more. I’m pleased with my outcome, considering the time constraints, but I know I could’ve done better if I’d had the time to research, experiment and plan.

Want some icons made?

We’d love to hear from you. We can create full custom icon sets for any project, be it something completely new, or to existing guidelines.

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