I find the most efficient way to produce quality icons is to spend a good proportion of the time allocated for the project, on the initial ‘Style Development’ stage. It might sound pretty obvious but getting this part of the project spot on can save a great deal of time later on. The client needs to feel that all the relevant ideas have been explored and that they are satisfied that the style you come up with will work for them. You don’t want to leave them wondering ‘what if?’ as it may come back and bite you later on.
Not every graphic designer is great with pencil sketches but it is still the quickest way to get an idea in front of the client to either be explored further, or dismissed. I find the use of sketches or ‘quick n’ dirty’ concepts a huge time saver.
On a typical project we will have 3 designers produce concept sketches for 2-3 icons. The client is then asked to choose the best concepts and the 3 designers will then render each of these concepts in the style they think will work best. All that is left is for the client to choose the style they prefer and that designer will take the project to its conclusion.
For me this process offers the client a lot of choice and also helps them make an educated decision over which designer has the right ideas as well as the right style for their project. It also allows us to try a lot of different ideas for minimum cost and every client likes that.